How Los Angeles plans to survive the Big One

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
USGS seismologist Lucy Jones during a news conference at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., on March 17, 2014. (Nick Ut/AP Photo)

Everyone knows that a really big earthquake is going to hit Los Angeles sooner or later. L.A. is as little as 35 miles from the San Andreas Fault, which isn’t just the longest fault in California — it’s the longest in the Lower 48. Historically, the average amount of time between quakes on the most dangerous part of the southern San Andreas is 100 to 150 years. The last one ripped through L.A. more than 300 years ago.

There’s a reason, in other words, why the City of Angels was recently ranked the most vulnerable metropolis in the world outside of Asia.

But knowing that L.A. is overdue for a Big One and understanding what a Big One would actually do to L.A. are two different things — and that difference was on vivid display at City Hall Tuesday morning, where Mayor Eric Garcetti was releasing a report with the buzzwordy title “Resilience by Design.”

The product of a yearlong collaboration between scientists and stakeholders, the 126-page package of earthquake safety recommendations focuses on fixing the three weakest elements of L.A.'s urban infrastructure: its pre-1980 buildings, its creaky, convoluted water system and its vulnerable telecommunications network. All in all, the report represents a “tectonic shift” in the city’s thinking, according to Garcetti.

“For a long time, Los Angeles has been at the epicenter of seismic risk,” the mayor declared Tuesday. “Today we are going to be at the epicenter of seismic preparedness.”

After Garcetti spoke, a city councilman named Gil Cedillo stepped to the podium. That day, in the early hours of the morning, a huge fire had engulfed a downtown apartment complex the size of an entire city block — 1.3 million square feet in all. From the windows of his nearby flat, Cedillo watched 250 firefighters battle the “brilliant” flames and contemplated how much worse a major earthquake would be.

“Think of that times 16,” Cedillo said. “Where would we be times 16?”

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Half of an expensive home lays in ruin January18th, 1994, after sliding down a hill as a result of a 6.6 earthquake that hit the Los Angeles area. At least 34 people have been confirmed dead in the quake. (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)

But just then, a woman’s voice interrupted him. It came from his left. “Sixteen hundred,” the voice said — as in, Los Angeles County would actually have to contend with 1,600 simultaneous fires after a major San Andreas earthquake, not 16.

“Sixteen hundred!” Cedillo repeated automatically. Then he stopped. The magnitude of what he’d just said suddenly hit him. “Oh, my God!” he said with a gasp. He looked incredulous. “Sixteen hundred?” he asked. As in, are you sure?

“Yep,” the voice said.

“That’s unthinkable,” Cedillo whispered. “And so I...” He trailed off. He couldn’t get over it. He leaned back. “Sixteen hundred?” he asked off-mike — one more time, just to be sure.

“Yes,” the voice said. Its owner nodded benevolently. She sounded like a schoolteacher correcting the same student mistake for the thousandth time.

Her name was Lucy Jones — and as the driving force behind Garcetti’s report, she may one day be remembered as the crusader who did more to save the earthquake-prone city of Los Angeles than anyone else. First by showing people like Cedillo that the Big One could be 1,000 times worse than they think — and now by showing them that it doesn’t have to be.

“We can never make L.A. perfectly safe,” Jones tells Yahoo News. “But if we follow all of these recommendations, I think we will have avoided the economic collapse. I think we’ll be able to get the city up and running pretty quickly after the big earthquake. And that’s all I want.”

Jones pauses. “I’ve been looking at these problems for a third of a century,” she finally says. “This is the biggest step I’ve ever seen.”

***

Eric Garcetti was sworn in as mayor on July 1, 2013. Jones approached him shortly thereafter. “I had met with previous mayors to help them understand what the science says,” she explains. “I wanted to make sure he knew that we were here for him.” Garcetti’s predecessors had listened to Jones. They’d respected what she had to tell them. But none of them had done much about it.

Garcetti’s reaction was different — “very much so,” Jones recalls. “We want to prepare for the next earthquake,” the mayor said. “We don’t want to take 10 years. We want to get something done in a year. How do we do it?”

The answer was to borrow Jones from her employer, the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. The USGS would continue to pay her salary for the next 12 months; the mayor’s office would get to use her know-how. On Jan. 14, 2014, Garcetti named Jones his Science Advisor for Seismic Safety — or, as he likes to joke, “SASS.”

USGS chief scientist Lucy Jones, Los Angeles City Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Earthquake Country Alliance Executive Director Mark Benthien and Metrolink Board Chairman Richard Katz do the ''drop, cover and hold on'' for several minutes to simulate a response to a massive quake at Union Station during the annual ''Great California ShakeOut'' in Los Angeles on October 18, 2012. (Ringo Chiu/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The acronym is appropriate. Jones, 59, is very short and somewhat broad, with thick brown hair that just brushes her shoulders. She wears frameless glasses and bulky necklaces. As NBC anchor Brian Williams once told Smithsonian magazine, Jones “has the bearing of your terrific next-door neighbor who takes superb care of her window boxes.” She is what your mother might have called “a no-nonsense type.”

Jones is also one of the world’s most influential seismologists. A fourth-generation Californian, her first memory is of an earthquake roiling the family home in Ventura. Her great-great-grandparents are buried in the San Andreas Fault. Jones didn’t take a geology class until her senior year at Brown — she was a Chinese major — but once she did, she tore through the entire 900-page textbook in a week. She went on to get a doctorate in geophysics at MIT. At the USGS she became an expert on foreshocks, pioneering a statistical method for predicting the likelihood that any given temblor will be followed by a bigger one.

But at a certain point Jones decided, as she told Smithsonian, that she’d rather “try and get the science used” than notch “one more level of academic achievement.” So she began to evangelize about earthquake risks — at city halls, in boardrooms and, of course, on television. After the 6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994, Jones conducted interviews while cradling her 1-year-old son in her arms, and she’s appeared on screen after pretty much every major quake since. Her files bulge with fan letters; she has been asked to sign autographs in Chile. She is, in short, the “Earthquake Lady.”

Or rather, she is L.A.’s Earthquake Lady, at least until her term expires at the end of 2014 and she returns to the USGS. Asked to describe how she has spent the past year, Jones doesn’t hesitate. “Talking to a lot of people,” she says. “The elected officials and their staff. The utility operators. The building owners. The business interests of Southern California.” Her goal? “To help nontechnical people understand what the research really says. We’ve been doing this for decades. We have a really great picture of what’s going to happen in the earthquake.”

The picture isn’t pretty. In 2008, Jones and her USGS colleagues released “The ShakeOut Scenario” — the most comprehensive report ever on the social, physical and economic havoc that a 7.8 southern San Andreas quake would likely wreak on the L.A. area. It reads like the screenplay of a disaster movie. “The question is not if but when southern California will be hit by a major earthquake — one so damaging that it will permanently change lives and livelihoods in the region,” is how the thing begins, and from there it just gets worse. (The following paragraphs are adapted from the report itself.)

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Overview of the damage at the I-5 and 14 fwy interchange after the Northridge earthquake, Jan 16, 1994, Los Angeles, CA. (Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The quake starts at 10 a.m. Commuters are arriving at work. The San Andreas Fault suddenly awakens northeast of the Salton Sea, and the rupture shoots along the fault at 2 miles per second, releasing seismic energy waves in every direction. The ground on either side of the fault is instantly offset by 44 feet.

En route to Los Angeles, the first waves rip through the Coachella Valley, collapsing older concrete buildings, trapping occupants, leveling historic downtown districts, dismantling miles of fault-straddling freeway, sending landslides across rails and roads, snapping pipelines and water lines, cutting off electricity, causing explosions. A minute and a half later, the seismic waves reach L.A. The violent rumbling will continue for another 55 seconds — an eternity compared with the seven seconds of shaking during the area’s last quote-unquote “big” earthquake, in 1994. Today’s San Andreas quake will be 45 times as strong as Northridge.

Hundreds of nonductile reinforced concrete, tilt-up concrete, unreinforced masonry and soft-story buildings have been reduced to dust. Kitchen floors have disappeared under heaps of Crisco, flour, and shattered dishes. Power is out, so stoplights are dark and electric trains are still. Traffic stretches to the horizon. Drivers abandon their cars.

Two minutes after the quake began, the fault has finally stopped rupturing. Within half an hour, 1,600 fires are burning across the region. Few are discovered right away. Phones don’t work. Emergency personnel are spread thin. Roads are impassable — damage, building debris, orphaned cars. In many places there is no water to fight the flames anyway. Some of these blazes will combine. Several will eventually merge into super-conflagrations — monster fires that consume everything for hundreds of blocks.

Los Angeles was founded long after the last big southern San Andreas quake, so the scope of the carnage is unlike anything the city has ever seen. Thousands of structures — 10 percent of the buildings in L.A. — are so gravely damaged that they can never be used again. Another 40 percent are not safe to use on a regular basis. Millions of people are cut off from their families. It will take a month or more to restore gas and electric services and to reopen most of the major roads. It will take a year or more for all the water systems to be certified as safe. Until then, residents lucky enough to have running water will have to boil it before taking a sip.

The Northridge earthquake caused 57 deaths, 8,700 injuries, and $20 billion in damage. That was bad. But the ShakeOut earthquake would be much, much worse: 2,000 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damage.

And that isn’t even the scariest part. “A disaster is one thing,” Jones says. “But a catastrophe — an event that fundamentally changes the nature of a community — is another.” According to Jones’s research, that’s exactly what would become of L.A. after a 7.8 on the southern San Andreas. Commuters wouldn’t be able to return to work. Business assets would be destroyed. Companies would begin to fold. University students would be transferred out of the region. Residents who had left L.A. during the recovery would decide not to return. And tens of thousands of people would have to go without permanent shelter or jobs — or both — because their buildings sustained so much damage.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A female refugee from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and citywide fires kneels on the ground and prepares a meal over a makeshift stove as two young children sit by at the United States Army run Golden Gate Park relief camp, San Francisco, California, 1906. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Look at what happened to the economy of New Orleans after Katrina,” Jones says. “It still hasn’t fully bounced back. Look at what happened to the economy of San Francisco after 1906; it permanently set the city on a different trajectory. The post-event economic depression in L.A. could dwarf what happens in the earthquake itself.” And that kind of depression wouldn’t just cripple Los Angeles (a city that boasts an $81 billion GDP and the largest container and cargo port in the United States). It could hobble the entire country.

At this point you might be saying, “Sure, a 7.8 sounds terrible. But how likely is it to happen?” Depends on your time frame. Next year? Two percent. The year after that? Two percent again.

But how about a longer span? How about, say, the next 30 years? At that point, you’re looking at something like a 59 percent chance, according to Jones — more likely than not. Stretch it out to a century, meanwhile, and a 7.8 becomes near-certain.

“How do you deal with that?” Jones asks. “You get rid of the known problems. It’s easy to make people understand that we are in danger. What wasn’t understood is that we can do something about it. So that’s been the last year of my life. It’s not just saying, ‘Here’s where the problem is.’ It’s also saying, ‘Here’s how we can change this outcome.’”

***

Hence “Resilience by Design.” It’s a remarkable document. “Historically, we don’t do anything about earthquakes until an earthquake happens, a bunch of people die, legislators need to show they’re doing something, and so they legislate the problems of the last earthquake,” Jones explains. “But what’s happening now — what’s different about this plan — is that we’re trying to be proactive and use science to figure out what’s going to happen in the next earthquake instead of the last one, and to prepare for that. It really is unique.”

The problem, of course, is that without an earthquake to light a fire under L.A. — both literally and figuratively — convincing the city to invest in preparedness will be even more difficult than it would be in the wake of an eye-opening disaster. And invest is exactly what Jones (and, by extension, Garcetti) is insisting that Angelenos need to do. “For the mayor, the price of getting me for free is that he really got me,” Jones says. “I didn’t work for him. He couldn’t say, ‘Politically, we can’t do this. Shut up.’ It was a significant gamble on his part.”

Pretty much every recommendation in the report will cost a lot of time, a lot of energy and, most of all, a lot of money. (At his press conference Tuesday, Garcetti confessed, under persistent questioning from local reporters, that the overall price tag would be “in the B’s” — as in “billions.”)

The cost, for example, of retrofitting nonductile reinforced concrete buildings within 25 years and soft-first-story buildings (such as L.A.’s infamous dingbats) within five years would fall to the owners of such structures, who in turn would pass that expense — “about $5,000 per unit or about $10 to $15 a square foot,” according to Garcetti — on to the people least able to afford another cost-of-living hike in what’s already one of the most unaffordable places in America: renters. (Tax incentives and phased increases would help soften at least some of the blow.)

(Getty Images/Yahoo News)

Same goes for water and telecommunications. “Resilience by Design” contains plenty of smart ideas for strengthening L.A.’s most vulnerable systems. Fortify the aqueducts that bring water in from other parts of California (a whopping 88 percent of L.A.’s water is imported). Increase the local water supply through capture, conservation, recycling and contamination redemption. Install a new, seismic-resilient pipe network. Create an alternative water system that would use rainwater and Pacific Ocean salt water to fight fires when the Big One hits. Partner with service providers to remove barriers to bandwidth and Internet access during emergencies. Develop a citywide, solar-powered backup Wi-Fi network. And so on.

But how does Garcetti propose to pay for such improvements? He doesn’t, really. Instead, he expects the City Council to lobby the state Legislature to float a statewide bond measure — which means taxpayers from the rest of California would help foot the bill.

In a city (and state, and country) that’s more used to ignoring future threats than facing them head on — powerful local interests have long fought, and will continue to fight, for the unsafe status quo — this all sounds like a very heavy lift.

But the Earthquake Lady, for one, is undaunted.

“Before, people would say, ‘I know the earthquake is inevitable. I still want to live in L.A. So I’m going to pretend it isn’t going to happen,’” Jones explains. “But now people are beginning to say, ‘The earthquake is inevitable. I still want to live in L.A. And I can change what that earthquake does to me.’ That’s amazing.”