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San Diego's Quake Risk Puts Us in the 'Worst of Both Worlds'

Our danger level is high, a seismic expert says, but it’s overshadowed by our neighbors to the north.

A view of downtown San Diego / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Seismologist Lucy Jones has been soothing jittery Southern Californians for decades. It’s her voice that you’re likely to hear on the radio at 3 a.m. after an earthquake shakes you awake from a deep sleep. It took her a long time to understand that listeners find her voice comforting, as if we just need to know the “earthquake lady” is on the case before we go back to bed.

Now, two years retired from the U.S. Geological Survey after a 33-year career, Jones may or may not answer the phone when reporters call about the latest jolt. She’s still advocating for earthquake safety, however, and that doesn’t mean talking about keeping a five-day water supply on hand.

Lucy Jones / Photo by Helen Berger

Jones says the time to act is when buildings are being built instead of waiting to prepare until people live in them.

In 2014, she led a quake safety project for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti that pushed for reform in areas like building inspections and protection of the water supply and communications system. L.A. has embraced many of the recommendations, she said. And two months ago, Garcetti called for more action.

There’s no such effort afoot here in San Diego, where seismic safety gets little official attention. But Jones warns that we’re whistling past the geological graveyard. “It’s really only in comparison with Los Angeles and San Francisco that you look like a low-risk city,” she said.

In fact, she describes San Diego as being in the “worst of both worlds,” stuck with a risk that’s too high for complacency but too underappreciated to get people’s attention.

Jones spoke with Voice of San Diego in an interview after the publication of her new book, “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).”

In our conversation, Jones warned about our community’s often-ignored earthquake risk. (A recent inewsource report details how local officials were in no rush to spread the news of a newly discovered fault in downtown San Diego.) She also looked back on her career and recalled the challenges and rewards of being a female pioneer in a male-dominated field.

There’s only been one reported death from an earthquake in San Diego’s recorded history. Yet seismologists say the Rose Canyon fault could cause a 6.9 magnitude quake and kill hundreds or even thousands. What can you tell us about our risk?

In any other state, San Diego would be considered a high-risk city. You only look like a low-risk city becomes of the comparison with Los Angeles and San Francisco.

San Diego is a lot like Christchurch, New Zealand. [In 2011, a devastating 6.3-magnitude there killed nearly 200 people, injured hundreds more and left the city deeply damaged. The downtown district in the city of about 372,000 had to be cordoned off, and some areas stayed closed for years. The quake devastated water and sewer systems.]

The fault is literally in the middle of the city, just like your situation with the Rose Canyon fault.

Also, both New Zealand and California are on plate boundaries [where earthquakes are especially common]. Christchurch thought, “Well, we’re not at the plate boundary, and it’s the city of Wellington [the capital of New Zealand] that has the problem.” But Christchurch is where the earthquake happened.

What else can we learn from Christchurch?

Look how difficult it has been for them to come back from this.

None of the new buildings collapsed. However, 1,800 buildings had to be torn down, and even buildings that were OK were shut off because it was too dangerous to be in the area. They lost their downtown for five years, and they lost a lot of population, a lot of families.

Their building code, like ours, says that you should be able to crawl out of a building alive. If the building doesn’t collapse, that’s a success. Almost any building built by a developer isn’t going to be stronger than that. And if it’s a total financial loss, that’s your choice [to build in the first place].

They have 95 percent insurance coverage, so they can afford to rebuild. What do you think will happen to us when we have the same thing? Without the insurance coverage, because we really don’t have it here in this country, will people be able to afford to rebuild?

We’ll have these downtown with gutted buildings or empty lots because people can’t afford to build, plus the ecological damage of this huge amount of debris. We’re talking about 300,000 buildings damaged badly enough to lose the ability to use them, and enough debris to fill all the landfills in California.

You’re pushing for state legislation that aims to require new buildings to be built to withstand a quake physically and still be functional, not just allow people to escape with their lives. What will happen if it passes?

We’ll have about a 1 percent increase in construction costs. After the earthquake, we can reclaim the function of our buildings, and we won’t lose our downtowns. If we don’t do this, we could have a quarter to a half of our buildings not be able to be used.

What can people do to protect themselves if they have an older home?

I wish people would stop thinking their old house must be fine because it must have been through a lot of earthquakes. In fact, you haven’t had any problems because you haven’t waited long enough. All of San Diego is going to be shaken [when a big quake comes] much more strongly than any time since the buildings were built.

When you purchase a building, get a foundation specialist or a structural engineer to look at it and tell you what you could do to make it safer. The building is only as good as the code to which it was built and the extent to which it was enforced. Unless you are built to the most recent building code, there’s something you can do.

In the houses where we’ve lived, the most is we’ve spent is $1,500. In one house, it costs us $500. It’s important to brace the cripple wall between the foundation and the floor. You’ve just got 2-by-4s holding the floor up, and once an earthquake hits, it collapses. It doesn’t kill you, but the house is a complete financial loss.

How did you get into this line of work?

My dad had been an aerospace engineer, and I decided I’d be an astrophysicist and live on the moon because I was sure we’d have colonies by the time I finished school.

But then I met geophysicists. They said you get to play in the mountains and get paid for it. That sounded like a really good idea, and I was hooked in the first week.

What special challenges did you face as a woman?

When I was in high school [in the L.A. neighborhood of Westchester] in the late 1960s, I regularly had teachers say things like, “You need to stop showing you’re so good in math or the boys won’t like you.”

Once I got a perfect score in a science test and the teacher made me retake it in front of her because girls don’t get scores like that.

But by 1972 and 1973, people were no longer saying quite such egregious things.

In some ways it helped me: I was “the woman from MIT.” Part of getting an academic science career is being recognized and being noticed. I had an advantage because I was the only woman coming through.

Over time, I became interested in getting the science used. That’s not what research scientists do. It’s a masculine world that’s a lot about personal success and achievement. But the field is starting to shift. You see a lot more interest in connecting with society, especially in younger scientists.

And we’re starting to see what damage has been done by the isolation of scientists in our academic corner. People aren’t believing climate change. There’s too much of a gap between scientists and policymakers and the larger society.

What do you think you’ve accomplished in your career?

There are three things I feel like I’ve done. I did a lot of work establishing what are called earthquake statistics: After an earthquake, what will the rate of aftershocks be and what’s the risk that it will be a foreshock of a bigger earthquake? That’s led to advisories issued by the state.

There’s also the aspect of taking one public communication and doing it more effectively. I’ve been a source of comfort to people. It’s taken me a long time to understand it how many people feel reassured when they hear me.

That’s about serving as a psychological support system rather than about the science, a different understanding of the role we’re playing.

This third thing is helping policymakers understand the science. That’s where change is going to happen. It’s their work that will help us get through an earthquake and recover after. I hope my work helps communities keep on going.

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