This Scientist’s Doomsday Earthquake Scenarios Will Terrify You, and That’s the Point

Scientist Lucy Jones speaks to a group of government officials from across Southern California in the desert just north of Palm Springs.

Scientist Lucy Jones speaks to a group of government officials from across Southern California in the desert just north of Palm Springs. (Jacob Margolis/KPCC)

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.

The San Andreas fault runs through the San Gorgonio pass, just north of Palm Springs.
The San Andreas fault runs through the San Gorgonio pass, just north of Palm Springs. (Jacob Margolis/KPCC)

“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.

A bulldozer tears down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
A bulldozer tears down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake in 1994. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

This Scientist’s Doomsday Earthquake Scenarios Will Terrify You, and That’s the Point 22 May,2017David Marks

  • Timothy D

    I truly trust the Lord Jesus Christ to watch over me. But this sounds like fear mongering at its best. There are some people who are NOT grounded in the Word, so they’ll become terrified. For me, “a thousand shall fall at my side, and 10 thousand by my right side. BUT IT SHALL NOT COME NIGH ME!”

    • LazarusRose

      You nailed it Tim. All the talk and prep in the world, besides total evacuation couldn’t help given an 8.2 quake. God is in control.

  • Jesse Morales

    As someone that is from the Inland Empire and goes home every summer from school, it is crazy to think that one day i will hear of hell breaking loose in my home area. Whether im in the area or not at the time, it still is a fright to think of.

  • John C

    Jones seems like a starry eyed dreamer, a glass half full type when it comes to the destruction of California. I’m kind of hoping the whole left half of the State slips into the pacific or at least a large part of it say from North of Orange county From L.A to S.F, Oakland and the surround leftist state. As sad as it might seem at first it might be a blessing for the nation in general.

  • BHU

    Earthquakes are liberal, they love to rip things apart and destroy…

  • LazarusRose

    I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. If Hellary had won, I believe it would have.

  • Trogg

    The San Andreas fault is small potatoes compared to the Pacific subduction fault that runs from Vancouver Island through most of northern California. We’re talking about a 9.2 quake. The last time it happened was 1700. We are overdo.

  • swede johnson

    I`m not sure if she realized that she was very close to the Colorado River Aquaducts that feed a huge volume of water to Los Angeles. They cross under the hiway 62 just south of the intersection of Indian ave. and hwy. 62. Probably one of the thinnest parts of the crust is in that area. Major consequence when it hits.

  • Unite_Blue

    I’m fairly certain everyone in the US would be OK with that. As soon as #Calexit happens, that is.

  • Joseph Powell

    Awful article…’2 story windmills’….’bulldozer tears down’.
    Is Jacob Margolis in elementary school?

  • Brenda Hanson

    Before everyone gets all full of it over the possibility of California’s destruction, remember the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the central and southern US.

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