It’s 102 degrees, just north of Palm Springs. White wind turbines, two stories high, dot the desert landscape all of the way to the base of snowcapped mountains in the distance.
Seismologist and earthquake expert Lucy Jones is standing on a small hill looking south, towards California’s most consequential fault: the San Andreas. It runs nearly the length of the state, from the Salton Sea to near Mendocino. From where we’re standing, the only evidence of the fault are slight indentations in the earth, snaking through the landscape. There are rocks and soil that’ve been moved by years of tectonic plates shifting below us.
Jones is surrounded by scrub brush and government officials from across Southern California. She’s brought them to bake in the desert sun to convince them that they need to do more to get ready for “the big one.”
“If you are in the Coachella Valley, don’t plan on getting to L.A. anytime after the earthquake, unless you have some way of flying,” she warns.
If there’s an earthquake on this section of the San Andreas, the region stands to lose large parts of the 10 freeway, she says. The earth could shift as much as 25 feet, incapacitating any utilities that cross the fault, which include water canals, natural gas pipelines and power lines. It could leave large parts of Southern California stranded.
She says the fault is capable of a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The Northridge quake was a 6.7.
“This will happen at some point. Plate tectonics isn’t turning off,” Jones says. “When it happens, we’re not going to have water. It’s going to take six months to get water back in all of our houses. We could lose electricity for the whole western U.S. We’re going to have no transportation. City-wide fires have the potential to burn down the city.”
For more than 15 years, Jones has been painting these nightmare scenarios, first as a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and now as an independent scientist, trying to convince businesses and governments to better prepare their emergency services, transportation grids and infrastructure.
Some cities, including Los Angeles, which hired Jones for a time, have heeded her advice. They figured out new rules for seismic retrofits, strengthened cell phone towers and took steps to further protect water systems, but there’s still more to be done. And some cities haven’t taken action to prepare at all.
“The challenge really is we are myopic,” says Howard Kunreuther, author of “The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters.” “We focus on the short run and as a result don’t really think about any kind of long-term decisions[…]about how we prepare.”
It’s tough to convince cities to prepare for something that’s not right in front of them, especially when things like potholes and homelessness are ever-present.
There hasn’t been a big quake on the San Andreas in over 160 years, making one long overdue, according to Jones. And since it’s so overdue, the likelihood of it happening is higher, as pressure between the plates builds.
But Kunreuther says people react to the disaster that just happened. That after Northridge, a lot of people purchased earthquake insurance, but over time the number of insured has declined, even as the risk of earthquake has continued to rise.
“We say, this event will not happen to me. So as a result, we don’t have to pay attention,” he says. “So, we think the likelihood of an earthquake occurring in California is sufficiently low that we don’t really have to buy insurance or undertake the protective measures that one should.”
Babara Kogerman, a city councilwoman from Laguna Hills, was listening to Jones out in the desert. She says that she’s been worried about being prepared for the big one, but that Jones helped bring the issue into focus.
And that’s the kind of reaction Jones is hoping she’ll get with her apocalyptic stories.