‘The Earthquake Lady’: To Prepare Americans for the Next ‘Big One,’ the Seismologist Tackles the Dangerous Phenomenon of Denial
One of Lucy Jones’ first memories is of an earthquake. It struck north of Los Angeles, not far from her family home in Ventura, and as the ground lurched, her mother guided 2-year-old Lucy and her older brother and sister into a hallway and shielded them with her body. Add that her great-great-grandparents are buried literally in the San Andreas fault and it’s hard not to think that her fate was preordained.
Today Jones is among the world’s most influential seismologists—and perhaps the most recognizable. Her file cabinets bulge with fan letters, among them at least one marriage proposal. “The Earthquake Lady,” she’s called. A science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Jones, 57, is an expert on foreshocks, having authored or co-authored 90 research papers, including the first to use statistical analysis to predict the likelihood that any given temblor will be followed by a bigger one.That research has been the basis for 11 earthquake advisories issued by the state of California since 1985.
Charged with improving the nation’s response to natural disaster, Jones’ specialty, increasingly, is another complex natural phenomenon: denial, that dangerous unwillingness to acknowledge the inevitable. What good is scientific knowledge, in other words, if people don’t respond to it?
You might have caught her on TV trying to help people understand earthquake risks after the Eastern Seaboard felt the 5.8 quake epicentered in Virginia this past August or after Tohoku, Japan, kept rocking and rolling after the 9.0 quake there last March. “She has the bearing of your terrific next-door neighbor who takes superb care of her window boxes. And yet she is as learned as anyone in the field,” says “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who has interviewed Jones numerous times on television.
“I’m everybody’s mother,” she likes to joke, aware that her gender—while not an asset when she was at MIT in the ’70s—is now a plus. “Women are more reassuring after an event,” she says, recalling how moved people were years back when she conducted post-quake TV interviews holding Niels, her 1-year-old son, in her arms (he’s 21 now). That mother-and-child tableau cemented her position as the informed voice of calm in truly unsettling times.