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Be worried about the quake—and the flood

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A book by seismologist Lucy Jones looks at LA’s deadliest disasters and how the city can prepare for them

A crack stretches across the road after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the area on July 4, 2019 near Ridgecrest, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

LA’s most famous seismologist, Lucy Jones, is well-known for schooling city leaders and busting Hollywood myths about our earthquake risk. But when it came to including a California disaster in her book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them), Jones opted to include what scientists have dubbed the “Other Big One.”

Meaning, a statewide megaflood.

“Who’s afraid of the rain? You get a prediction, you see things coming, you get out of the way,” says Jones.

But in 1861 it started raining and didn't stop for 45 days, inundating much of the state.

“In LA, they said there was water from ‘mountain to mountain,’” says Jones. “All of Orange County was underwater. And the Central Valley was underwater for six months.”

Sacramento’s downtown during the Great Flood. After the water receded, city planners raised the entire downtown above flood levels.

The Great Flood, as it was named, was the result of a series of atmospheric river storms that pummeled the Pacific coast from December 1861 to January of 1862. Roads were washed out and communication systems were severed. Every major city was flooded; Sacramento’s downtown was only accessible by boat.

In the end, the Great Flood forced lawmakers to temporarily move the capitol to San Francisco, destroyed the state’s economy, and killed just over 1 percent of California’s population.

Imagine that: A disaster that relocates the government, bankrupts its citizens, and leaves one out of every 100 Californians dead.

It could happen again.

Jones’ book explores the science behind major disasters like the Great Flood, the volcanic eruption that leveled Pompeii in 79 A.D., and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But it’s also about the way cultures move forward after total devastation.

The chapter about the Great Flood is entitled “What We Forget,” because it examines the evolutionary phenomenon that makes humans ignore risk and focus more on short-term, immediate crises.

“Our fear of randomness makes us create patterns to explain why bad things happen,” she says. “We don’t want to think it can happen to us.”

Without relatable stories passed down from grandparents or great-grandparents who experienced the flood first-hand, for example, we’re not very good at evaluating how vulnerable we might be to the same disaster.

Scientists are now responsible for authoring those stories that used to be handed down through generations to help us remember.

Even Jones, who is a fourth-generation Californian, didn’t know about the Great Flood until the U.S. Geological Survey authored a report based on the flood. The ARKstorm scenario looked at how the same storm would affect California today, estimating that a similar event would inundate 25 percent of the state and cost $725 billion—three times as much as the most powerful earthquake scenario.

The report also forced the state to confront its vulnerability in an age when climate change has boosted the power and frequency of atmospheric river storms. Scientists referenced the report as they watched the near-failure of the state’s Oroville Dam during heavy rains in 2017.

Helping cities come to grips with risk from the natural world has been a key part of Jones’s career. During her three decades at the USGS, Jones was known as the “Earthquake Lady” due to her regular appearances on local news after major seismic events. She then worked as the first city seismologist for the city of Los Angeles, where she delivered a game-changing 2014 report on earthquake preparedness.

Great Southern California ShakeOut Teaches Earthquake Awareness
Seismologist Lucy Jones (L) demonstrates how to drop and cover at Stevenson Elementary School in Burbank in 2008.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The good news, she says, is that four years later, everything she recommended in the city report is going forward, with the retrofitting of the city’s most dangerous buildings moving faster than expected.

In her role with the city, Jones also tried to get LA’s leaders to think bigger—because the real damage wrought by a natural disaster is not necessarily the disaster itself. “Even in Pompeii, 90 percent of the population escaped,” she says.

Long after the life-threatening aspect of a disaster is over, a society might suffer far greater longterm economic and social impacts due to how long the power is out, schools are closed, and central business districts are shut down. In New Orleans after Katrina, and more recently, Puerto Rico after Maria, the amount of time it took for everyday life to return to normal triggered mass migrations that permanently altered communities.

Especially after a record-breaking year of costly natural disasters—and a federal government less equipped to respond to them, which Jones says we should be worried about—cities are changing the way they approach disaster preparedness with a new focus on how quickly they can be back up and running.

Jones is championing a proposed change to California’s building codes that would keep more people housed after a seismic event. Right now, buildings here are engineered to “life safety” standards, meaning they’re designed to protect human lives—not necessarily to structurally survive the shaking.

It also means that about 10 percent of buildings will collapse in a major earthquake, something Jones says is unacceptable. “Enough buildings will be so badly damaged that people are going to find it too hard to live in LA or San Francisco,” she told the New York Times.

Other countries with seismic risk are taking their building standards one step further—moving towards stricter “reusable” standards. This would mean not only fewer collapsed buildings, but also that repairs to damaged buildings would take weeks, not months or years.

Jones was up in Sacramento last month testifying in support of a new bill, AB 1857, which would require these more stringent codes for new multi-story buildings. The new standards only add about 1 percent to overall construction cost, she says.

The challenges of designing for resilience, rather than just for recovery, make up the final chapter of the book, which is set in LA “sometime in the future.” It’s also why Jones founded the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, based in Burbank, where scientists can serve as a resource for city leaders. “My learning process was coming to understand about how large the divide was between what scientists were doing and what the government was actually using in policy.”

Resilience also means embarking upon a larger effort to disaster-proof local resources. In LA, this means investing in solar energy or recharging groundwater basins so we’re not relying on fragile power lines or an aqueduct that has to travel through the San Andreas Fault in a century-old wooden tunnel. These changes not only allow cities to survive after a major life-threatening event, they also help mitigate the impacts of climate change, long before the disaster arrives.

A megaflood might have the potential to cause more devastation statewide, but an earthquake is still top of mind—especially after this month’s rattler—so what should Angelenos do?

“I couldn’t get myself to say, ‘make a kit, have a plan,’” says Jones. “I don’t think that’s how we go forward. What really matters is our communities. It’s about living after the event and how miserable that can be. It’s whether your society survives the earthquake. Is LA even going to be here after this?”

One resource for Angelenos is the Community Emergency Response Training program, which allows neighborhoods to organize their disaster response, block-by-block.

“Don’t go into your bunker,” she says. “Go to your neighbors, go to your church, your school, and say, ‘how do we work together?’ And guess what—we’ll have a more connected community and we’ll have a better place to live before the earthquake hits.”