Question is not if, but when

Dr. Lucy Jones, known as the “earthquake lady” for her years as earthquake spokesperson for the U.S. Geological Survey, now heads the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society.
Photo courtesy Dr. Lucy Jones

Dr. Lucy Jones, known for her years as the face of U.S. Geological Survey earthquake study and information, has retired from government employ and has shifted her focus to advocacy for earthquake preparation and building community interconnectedness.

“The ‘Big One,’ [major earthquake on southern section of the San Andreas Fault] is coming,” said Jones. “The question is not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

Northern sections of the fault have experienced major eruptions on average every 150 years. The southern section, running through the Coachella Valley, has not had a major eruption for more than 300 years. It is long overdue and seismic pressure is building. Jones notes that the southern San Andreas Fault is capable of a magnitude-8.2 quake.

“The Shakeout Earthquake Scenario — A Story that Southern Californians are Writing,” written by Jones and others (, is the chronicle of a possible magnitude-7.8 earthquake that begins in Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea.

Within minutes, it has devastated Southern California, closed extended sections of interstates 10 and 15, severed county and state transportation corridors, water and sewer lines, and made delivery of goods, supplies and emergency response equipment extremely difficult.

The 16-page narrative, detailing a magnitude-7.8 November earthquake on a Thursday at 10 a.m. when commuters are still on highways, schools are full and workers are at their places of business, is as fascinating as it is frightening. One reads the narrative as it unfolds second-by-second, minute-by-minute, as powerful shaking devastates the 

Coachella Valley and San Bernardino, then moves on to Los Angeles and Long Beach. Violent shaking lasts 60 seconds in the Coachella Valley and 55 seconds in Los Angeles, causing massive damage.

Major aftershocks of magnitude 7 (33 minutes after the quake begins), magnitude 7.2 (17 hours later), magnitude 5.6 (23 hours later) and magnitude 5.7 (two-plus days later) continue to disrupt transportation corridors, collapse additional buildings, and cause fires and landslides. Many people remain outside more than a month after the quake because of nowhere to go. The scenario ends two years later with recovery still incomplete.

Jones notes that the projected destruction, deaths and injuries are just the beginning. The greater social and economic consequence will be whether fractured communities can recover. “Some may never pull it off,” said Jones. “Those communities may never return.”

Jones cites how in Japan the traditional social fabric of staying close to communities of birth and extended families helped recovery efforts. In the 2011 magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami, Jones observed that 10 percent of the population lost their homes. Many remained in temporary housing five years later. But few left after the disaster. “They’re responding with the strengthening of their social fabric,” said Jones. “Many who had moved away [before the quake] moved back to assist and be part of the recovery process.

“In the U.S., our evolutionary biology makes us different. We crossed oceans and moved away from our traditional homelands. We walked away from our families and culture.” Cooperating with neighbors, and finding communal solutions, is not as natural in this country as in Japan, observed Jones. “And then there is the normalcy bias, a mental state people hold regarding disaster,” said Jones. “Instinctual fear of what can’t be seen or accurately predicted keeps people from focusing on earthquake preparation. The more distant the last occurrence, the more people avoid taking steps to prepare.”

Jones notes that in her new role as advocate for earthquake preparation, her organization, the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society (, stresses strengthening community organizations and working with neighbors to respond to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Jones’ other focus is on retrofitting and encouraging more people to take advantage of programs that make vulnerable buildings structurally stronger. The more homes and businesses that survive an earthquake and a long rebuilding period, the more likely is the recovery of that particular community, notes Jones.

  A USGS abstract, “Forecasting California’s earthquakes: What can we expect in the next 30 years,” states: “In a new comprehensive study, scientists have determined that the chance of having one or more magnitude-6.7 or larger earthquakes in the California area over the next 30 years is greater than 99 percent.”

The magnitude-7.8 scenario in the Shakeout narrative forecasts 2,000 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damages and severe, long-lasting disruption to communities, area infrastructure and social fabric.

“The San Andreas Fault slices through southern California and produces earthquakes that shape and reshape the region,” states the narrative. “Unlike many other faults, the southern San Andreas Fault produces no small earthquakes. Its next earthquake will disrupt the complicated economic and social systems that define southern California and will affect everyone, including those living and working in communities relatively undamaged by the initial violent shaking.”

Hypothetically, Idyllwild could avoid catastrophic damage that flatland communities and infrastructure are likely to experience from a major earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault. But transportation of goods, food, medicine and other everyday necessities to Idyllwild could be disrupted for months. And that still mandates preparation.

Jones preaches preparedness. Visit and for information on retrofitting, finding approved retrofit contractors and earthquake insurance quotes. Earthquake insurance quotes can be constructed with varying deductibles to lower monthly premiums.

“The coming earthquake is a foreseeable tragedy that can be prepared for,” said Jones. “Our approach is to educate about true impacts so that people can make cost-effective decisions to understand the likely damage and how it will affect them. The biggest financial impacts in many disasters come from the failure of utilities and other lifelines that support our urban environments.

“Much of the vulnerability is not the result of the damage to a single utility but the cascading failures as one lifeline loses the support from another,” she said. “In most large disasters, more money is lost through business disruption and population flight after the event than from damage in the event itself.”

The population displacement and damage to the infrastructure of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was massive. Twelve years later, the city has yet to recover.

The damage from a massive quake in a much larger geographical area and far more densely populated Southern California is likely to be even greater and more long-lasting.

“Life will be difficult after a big disaster and recovery will depend on people willing to stay and do the work of recovery,” said Jones. “Be prepared for the next year or years after the Big One.”