How To Get Ready For Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Floods, and Earthquakes
Popular Science|Winter 2018
How To Get Ready For Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Floods, and Earthquakes

Seismologist Lucy Jones is on a crusade to prepare us—and our infrastructure—for the next Big One.

Mary Beth Griggs

On a sweltering day in Pasadena, California, geologist Lucy Jones stands above a steep, dry river bed overlooking Los Angeles County. To the southwest, LA sprawls out to the HollywoodHills. Jones, whose demeanor is as sunny as the sky, sees an abundance of disaster.

“Here’s your Southern California issue,” she says, pacing the trailhead that leads to a quarry below. “You’ve got earthquakes that push up the mountains. That traps the rain, but then erosion brings [the mountains] back down.” In other words, the quakes build them up and the rains wash them away. Jones points to what looks like a healthy bush in the ravine. It’s actually a willow tree, nearly up to its leafy crown in 6 feet of dirt.Rubble and soil slid there after a 2009 wildfire burned 160,000 acres, destroyed more than 200 buildings, displaced more than 10,000 people, and denuded these slopes. With nothing to hold back the earth, storms sent slurries of rock and mud downhill, further ravaging the landscape.

Fires, earthquakes, and landslides are interconnected forces that shape this topography. They are as intertwined as the web of geological faults that lie beneath LA County. The biggest of those, the San Andreas, is never far from Jones’ mind. No one knows when it will move, but this tectonic boundary one day will—and shake all of Southern California to its foundation. Experts predict it will kill 1,800 people; rupture 966 roads, 21 railroads, and 32 aqueducts; down 141 power lines; damage 300,000 buildings; and leave millions of survivors cut off from critical resources.

Jones wants people to understand that it doesn’t have to be a complete disaster, not if we listen to her and her experts. Through her namesake Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, she tries to persuade officials and community organizers to prepare for the worst. Her fixes range from the simple, such as attaching furniture to walls, to the complex, including retrofitting homes with wall braces, bolting office buildings to their foundations, and even installing shock absorbers, called base isolators, that will keep a structure from shaking too much.

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Winter 2018