Photo courtesy of Eilis Maynard/FEMA.

Lucy Jones received one of the most prestigious awards for a federal employee last year to the surprise of no one. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist earned the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the citizen services category for her work in seismic research.

That award came largely because of her work in 2014 in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office for a project that aimed to shape public policy toward the eminent Big One the city faces. The work resulted in the Resilience by Design report and important legislation. Garcetti called Jones’ work with Los Angeles groundbreaking in the way it bridges the gap between seismic science and public action. Jones announced that her last day with the USGS is March 30.

What’s the Resilience by Design program?

Probably the most important part of the water plan actually was the creation of what we call the Resilience by Design program within the Department of Water and Power.

There is a full-time person in charge of seismic resilience for the system developing these retrofit projects and evaluating new projects as they come forward. 

The commitment is to a future of seismic-resilient pipes. The path to that is going to be starting with a network of hardened arteries. So they’re setting up priorities for replacement to maximize the network and get water to as much of the city as possible.

There are two different types of pipes. The Japanese approach is called the earthquake-resistant ductile iron pipes. The joints between the pipes are done with O-rings and flexibility.

Ductile iron doesn’t break, but the joints do. In the 2011 magnitude 9 in Japan, Tokyo Disney needed so much water, so they laid their own water pipes and did it with these earthquake-resistant pipes. During the earthquake you had two overlapping water systems: one traditional and one with the new earthquake-resistant pipes in the exact same area. There were lots of breaks in the old pipes and none in the new ones, so it was a great test.

The other approach is polyethylene. There is high-density polyethylene and mid-density polyethylene. There was a test installation when the Christchurch [New Zealand] quake happened and they lost water to the whole city, but the test installation did fine.

How much of an impact do you expect Resilience by Design to have?
The city is moving forward in a way that I was afraid might not happen. It’s easier to say we’re going to do something than to actually do it. And I’ve been really impressed at the implementation.

On the building side there were three recommendations for ordinances to mandate retrofitting. Two of them have passed and the third one is in the works. There was also a call for a voluntary rating system working with the U.S. Resiliency Council to be able to say whether a building is worth it or not. That’s going forward. The USRC was just getting started as we were doing this; they are not fully formed.

The city has gotten an agreement with them about how to rate their own buildings. On the rating system it was like the mayor was really interested in the idea of just mandating ratings. Right, we give you a rating on your restaurant. The reality is it’s very expensive to rate a building.

It also really panicked building owners. Part of the reason they didn’t oppose the mandatory retrofit is because we backed off a mandatory rating system. The city committed to rating all of its own buildings and disclosing the information. The rating process is underway and will be released in the winter.

The other part of the recommendations on buildings is what we call the Back to Business program, the process for a big corporation to facilitate doing the ratings right after a big earthquake. Everything is moving forward. Three are completely done and the other two are on the way.
You’ve said we’re good at preventing deaths. What’s the biggest fear?
Collapse of the economy because we’d lose our rental housing, we’ll lose our commercial building stock and we’ll lose our water, and people won’t stay here. And like what happened in New Orleans after Katrina — it’s taken them a long time to get back.

We’ve reached a point, at least in the Los Angeles Metro area and the Bay Area, where people know they’ve got an earthquake problem. What we haven’t done is gotten them to the place of being aware of how they can change the outcome. That’s getting better. I’ve been impressed with San Francisco and how they’ve grappled with their utility issue and the big bonds they’ve passed to start strengthening the water system.

We need to support getting the science to people and getting it used. I think we have an awareness of the problem, but we have not yet developed a sufficient understanding of how we can prevent the problem.

Our country is much better at responding to a disaster than preventing it. We’re willing to pay firemen, but we aren’t willing to pay for mitigation in general. I’m passionate about the mitigation — how do we move beyond just responding to the disaster and start being able to prevent it? Because most of it is preventable.

Talk about the water problems.
When we did our model of a big earthquake, fire following the earthquake doubled the losses and business disruption doubled the losses. Business disruption was primarily from lack of water. Lack of electricity would also do it, but it looks like we would be out of water for a much longer time.

Then there is the really big issue: Here in Southern California we get a large percentage of our water from outside the region. Last year 88 percent of its water came from outside the region and every drop of that had to cross the San Andreas Fault to get to us. There are four aqueducts serving Southern California and every one of them crosses the fault.

Up until now much of the planning has been, “Well OK, so we lose an aqueduct, we’ve got three others. We’ll be OK.” Which is not noticing a very important feature of big earthquakes — the way they become big is because there is a longer piece of the fault that breaks. The only way to have a magnitude 8 is to have such a long section of the fault that we break all of them at the same time.

The geologists all knew that all [the aqueducts] are going to break at the same time, the water planners were assuming only one. That changes the dynamics. There are two big pieces to that. One is to retrofit Los Angeles’ aqueduct, and the other one is to work with the other two entities, the California Department of Water Resources and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California], which operates the other three aqueducts. Both of those things are underway.

Talk about the future of response.
The USGS and Caltech jointly run the earthquake monitoring and detection system in Southern California. There is a similar partnership between the USGS and Berkeley in Northern California. All of those together along with the state Strong Motion Program is called the California Integrated Seismic Network. Since 2000 those have been tightly coordinated and are merging toward being operated as a single system.

We at the USGS have put together a plan for how we could expand on the existing system where we do it so rapidly that we could provide an early warning for earthquakes. The survey put together this plan — it’s like $16.5 million a year to operate such a system, and people want to say, “What does it cost to build it?” But that’s sort of immaterial — you have to operate it. That operation plan includes a 10-year lifecycle on the instrument, so if we operate at that level for 10 years, we will have built out the whole thing.

That’s the whole western U.S. — Washington, Oregon, and Northern and Southern California — and we would operate them out of three centers (Southern California, Northern California and Seattle) because that’s the way we’ve been operating the networks.

It’s being funded at $5 million a year. And then we’ve been doing what we can to keep it going, building on existing networks and using existing organizations and systems. Los Angeles was able to use some UASI money to help with the network to buy instruments and hire contractors to install them. It added more than 100 new stations here in Southern California, so we have the density needed for early warning across the region.

One of our big challenges is that we need to be telling people what the shaking is going to be. Your appropriate reaction if it’s going to be barely noticeable is going to be different from something that’s bringing down your house. We need to describe how strong the shaking is going to be.

Our conclusion is we’ve done a very bad job of educating the public about earthquakes. We’ve gotten them all trained to think about magnitude. Magnitude is the number representing the size of the earthquake — it doesn’t tell you what you feel.

Intensity is the description of what you feel. We can describe the intensity of the shaking through accelerations or velocities, numbers that make the scientists and engineers happy, but in general people do a better job of having a more arbitrary scale so the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale goes from one to 10 and describes the level of shaking. The worst shaking in the Northridge and Loma Prieta earthquakes was intensity 9.

When we have our big San Andreas earthquake, we’re going to have intensity 10 running through San Bernardino. So even though it’s smaller — 7.8 — the intensity of shaking will be stronger than a magnitude 9 or offshore in Cascadia. Intensity tells you what you’ve got, but mostly people don’t know the scale.

One of the things the research showed us was that people remember numbers much better than descriptors. So intensity 7 means a lot more than strong shaking, but only if you know what intensity is. One of the conclusions of this is that early warning needs an education program to teach people about intensity and get them ready to use it.

Does this mean it’s hard to envision a recovery?
The big part is that the losses and the recovery can dwarf what happens in the disaster itself. If you look at Hurricane Katrina, the lost GDP is on the order of something like $150 billion — substantially more than they lost in the hurricane itself. What we really need to figure out is how to get a quick enough recovery. It also doesn’t make sense to say, “Let’s try and prevent all losses.” That’s really not doable, but we can prevent a lot of them. What we should be trying to do is focusing on the ones that have the biggest potential for delaying the recovery. 

This article was originally published on Emergency Management.