December 10, 2013
The annual get-together of American Geophysical Union was held this
year in San Francisco. The irony of the venue for seismologist Lucy
Jones’ talk Sunday to the American Geophysical Union — “Imagine America
Without Los Angeles” — was doubtless not lost on its audience.
is known to Southern Californians as “the earthquake lady” for her TV
appearances. “I mean, she has fans! Who has fans?” said the moderator.
Jones said she chose her title “thinking it would appeal to a San
Many San Franciscans have no problem luxuriating in such a
scenario, believing the world would be a better place sans their
But theatrics aside, Jones’ point was very
serious, and something Southern California leaders ought to add to a
seismic preparedness agenda right away.
Jones’ current research
centers not so much on earthquake survival, but on the ways Californians
might fare in the aftermath. And her prognosis is grim: After the
imminent Big One, urban society is at risk.
“Your chance of dying
in an earthquake is really less than of dying in a lightning strike,”
she said. “That at this point is not really the issue. ... As our
cities grow, and as we evolve new technology, we are increasing our risk
in a big earthquake.”
The last time there was a large seismic event on the fault that
can do us the most harm, the San Andreas, in 1857, Los Angeles had about
4,000 residents. “We really weren’t worried about keeping a complex
social structure in place,” Jones said. But as we get bigger and more
complex, we increase our vulnerability.
Jones said that at this point, with our new reliance on technology to
sustain us in the medium and long run after an earthquake, we simply
can’t point to the stash of water and food in our garages and say, “OK,
Perhaps 1 in 100 buildings in this region would collapse after
the Big One. Far more vulnerable is our underground infrastructure of
utilities. Municipal water lines were installed as much as a century
ago. They are decaying and would break in a quake. We increasingly rely
on the Internet and cellular telephone technology for communication, and
there is no guarantee those would be up after a big earthquake —
especially, Jones said, because there’s no legal requirement that cell
towers be seismically strong. It’s not just personal communication;
grocery stores and others use the Internet for their stocking and
ordering. Plus the warehouses that store food in the Inland Empire are
far from the urban core, and roadways are at risk.
Old water pipes are already breaking down, as we know from the
many big leaks in recent years. We need to invest in shoring up all that
Panic is not the answer. Hard work is. And there
are some obvious vulnerabilities. Jones notes in particular that
two-thirds of the fiber-optic cables connecting Southern California
cross the San Andreas, as do all the natural gas lines. The first fix
she suggests, and one that is financially doable right now: the gas
lines. Next, everything else.
“We’re all in this together,” Jones concluded. And together we ought to heed her words.