Strengthening our buildings and other physical infrastructure in anticipation of such a catastrophe is crucial. But The Big Ones focuses more on the social components of disaster preparedness and response — which, Jones argues, are far more important factors in determining whether or not a community will recover successfully from a natural disaster. In 12 lively and provocative chapters, Jones evaluates the community responses to a dozen disasters that have occurred throughout history, from the burial of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011.
My conversation with Dr. Jones focused on how Southern California can better prepare our social infrastructure for the looming “big one.”
MATT TINOCO: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but I was born just after the Northridge earthquake, so I really haven’t ever experienced a big earthquake.
LUCY JONES: You haven’t been in a real earthquake.
I haven’t been in a real earthquake. So, I’m kind of curious, how long will the shaking last when the San Andreas ruptures?
That depends upon exactly what length of the fault goes. It’s quite predictable. The ruptures will travel along the fault at two miles per second. In the Southern California Shakeout scenario we modeled, the fault would rupture from the Salton Sea up to Lake Elizabeth, just northwest of Palmdale. That’s 200 miles, about 100 seconds of shaking. If it ruptures all the way up to San Luis Obispo, that’s another 150 miles, which adds on another minute or minute and a half.
Now, that’s not two or three minutes of intense shaking at your site. If you’re sitting in Los Angeles, the energy coming at you from the Salton Sea has gotten quite attenuated, but the shaking coming at you from Palmdale, on the other hand, is much closer by and will be much stronger. When we did the Shakeout model for that 200-mile-long rupture, we had 50 seconds of strong shaking in downtown Los Angeles, 60 seconds in Santa Monica. If you’re up in the hills, you get less duration of strong shaking, because part of what’s happening is the ground soils slosh back and forth.
Right, because the L.A. Basin was once a wetland.
Yes. If you’re up in the Hollywood Hills, where the ground is more solid, you’re only going to get about 20 seconds of strong shaking. It will only be the shaking coming from the part of the fault nearest to you, and the ground won’t reverberate. You will be feeling shaking for a longer time, but what’s really doing the damage is 20 seconds up in the hills, and 50 to 60 seconds in the flats — which is huge! Northridge was about seven seconds.
That hasn’t happened in living memory. We’ve built an entire city, but none of it has ever been tested. We have our building codes, but we don’t really know what will happen.
Well, yes and no. We, meaning the general public, do not. One of our problems is that we have engineers and designers who do think they know what the earthquake will be like because they went through Northridge. Planning for the Big One is very different from planning for Northridge because it will include all of Southern California at once.
What we did with the Shakeout Scenario was say, “We know this is what the shaking will be, now let’s figure out what that means for all of our construction.” We now have a pretty detailed picture of what will happen. The introduction to my book is the result of those scientifically based models. It is not made-up storytelling. It’s a story based solidly in the science of the best estimate of what will actually happen.
In the introduction, you reference how we have a building code that assures some types of buildings have a 99-percent success rate. That’s great for one building, but in a city with millions of buildings, that’s actually very scary. Does a big San Andreas quake mean something like 20 or 30 percent of our building supply will be immediately red-tagged and unusable? I know most buildings are not going to outright collapse, but we’re not going to be able to use them again afterward.
We’re not going to be able to use them. There is a new report out about the Hayward Fault, in the East San Francisco Bay, which estimates that one quarter of the Bay Area’s new buildings will be immediately yellow- or red-tagged after a Hayward fault rupture.
I was recently in Sacramento testifying about a bill that Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian put forward that says we need to move toward what we’re calling a “functional recovery” standard, instead of having a “life safety” standard. Life safety is intended to make sure you can crawl out of a building alive, but if your building is a total loss, well, that’s your problem. The bill would make it so that our standards don’t permit the construction of disposable buildings we will not be able to reuse. The goal is to build structures that can be back into service within a reasonably short period of time. That’s one of the most important things we could do to serve our long-term economic viability.
What about long-term economic viability? Say the big quake happens, knocks down all the freeways, and nobody can get to work — how does that play out?
Long-term economic viability is not just money. It’s people. It means that you still have a job, that you still have a home.
I met a man when I visited Christchurch, New Zealand, after their earthquake in 2011. One of the citizens there begged us to stop considering life safety as only what happens at the moment of the event. He told us the story of his brother, who lived through the quake. His building was a total loss, had to be torn down, and he didn’t have insurance. He was bankrupted by the earthquake and ended up committing suicide.
That’s one of the things I try to do with my book. Even in Pompeii, 90 percent of the people there lived through it. This isn’t a life safety issue. This isn’t about whether or not you survive the initial shock. It’s about whether or not your city survives, and whether our society and our community survives in the months and years after.
If this earthquake happened tomorrow, Southern California would become a very different community. And it could very well be a much smaller community as people just give up. What I’m trying to do is get people to say, “Let’s strengthen our community.”
You’re talking about our social system?
Yes. I’m saying we need to get churches and mosques and schools to work together — and plan how they’re going to handle this kind of event — so that afterward people come together in the communities they already have and can work together to recover. Stronger communities recover more effectively, but they’re also just inherently stronger communities. That’s a good thing!
All I can think about is how an earthquake of this magnitude will destroy housing in an already housing-tight city. Then, I also think about how maybe it’s unlikely we’re going to “solve” the housing crisis until we lose something like a third of our housing supply overnight. Or, maybe not. Maybe it’s what you said earlier, that Southern California will be a lot smaller.
Well, I’ll take two messages out of that. One of them is that if you think we have a housing crisis now, think of what it will be like after the earthquake. In Northridge, a much smaller earthquake that affected a much smaller area, Los Angeles lost 49,000 housing units. The estimate for the Shakeout is that over a quarter of a million households will lose their homes. So, you think we have a housing crisis now? Think about what happens when another quarter of a million households become homeless.
For example, you have all these people who don’t think they have a problem because they have a nice new condo in a new building in downtown Los Angeles. What they don’t know is that they are buying a new unit in a building designed to make sure they can crawl out alive, not to be used again after. Some big percentage of them are not going to be able to get back into that modern high-rise after the earthquake. So, again, you think you have a housing problem now? Think of what it’s going to be like later on.
On the other hand, as you said, disasters can be opportunities. And that’s where my second-to-last chapter, on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, comes into play. Those women I show rebuilding aren’t just protecting their families and getting a job again — they’re changing their society at a pretty fundamental level and in a way they probably wouldn’t be able to do if things hadn’t been so disrupted. For us, there are a lot of social and cultural reasons why we have a housing crisis, beyond just the economics, which will also be disrupted.
There’s an aspect of it that resonates very strongly in American society: if someone is poor and disadvantaged, we tend to think it’s their fault. We are very wary of rewarding bad behavior. People say that by giving somebody a house, you’re rewarding their laziness. People say, “Oh, well, some people choose to be homeless.” Various experiments have shown that if you just give homeless people housing with no strings attached — just give them a roof — public costs go down. And yet we just can’t seem to go there as a society because somehow giving people a home means we’re rewarding bad choices.
You talk about this in the chapter on Hurricane Katrina.
Yes. It comes back to our human need to explain away randomness. When we run out of reasons to explain why something bad happened to somebody else, we blame the victim. That’s a pretty universal thing for people to do. When we are faced with danger, we try to create a pattern to help us be safe. We have this evolutionary imperative that, when faced with danger, we try to find a pattern that will help us be safe in the future. That is how we survived and evolved into human beings, which means it’s pretty deeply wired in us — we’re looking for the pattern that allows us to be safe. Instead of accepting randomness when we can’t find a pattern, we blame the victim.
We do this for a lot of things. For example, say you just heard somebody got lung cancer. The first thing you ask is, “Oh, did they smoke?” Or if you hear that somebody had a heart attack, you say, “Well, they sure didn’t exercise that much, did they?” Victim blaming happens because it’s a way you can then say to yourself, “You know, I don’t smoke. I get my exercise. That’s not going to happen to me.”
When we face danger, we try to find a pattern for safety. When everything fails in a random disaster, we try find a way to say it’s the victim’s fault because we don’t want to believe that it could happen to us, and that we would have been better prepared. I really saw that in Katrina. People asked, “Why were those people so stupid to not evacuate?” But this ignores the fact that 100,000 people in New Orleans didn’t own a car, that there was no alternative other than self-evacuation. It wasn’t their fault, but we made it into their fault.
We never want to say that these things could happen to ourselves. If we give some of our resources to help somebody, it feels like we’re acknowledging that the bad thing could happen to us, and we just don’t want to go there. We want to think that it’s their bad choices, and that we need to punish them for those bad choices. It’s the Puritan background of America.
It’s still with us.
The last sections of your book have to do with building community. What are the best things we can do to prepare, aside from having our food and our water, and knowing where to shut off the gas? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if you shut off the gas in your building if your neighbors in the next building over don’t, because both buildings catch fire.
Well, there is plenty of stuff that we could do, and you could find that information really easily if you decided you wanted to do it. What I want to do is to encourage you to decide to do it, and to do it with your community.
A lot of our messaging about disasters — think about what you’ve heard about earthquake and disaster preparedness — are very individualist messages. We say, “You need to have a kit,” “You need to have a plan,” “You need to protect your family, and you’re going to be on your own for so many hours.” Our messaging is a very American individualist message about how you should be ready, as an individual or a family unit. When you listen to that kind of messaging, there’s an implication that your neighbor could become your enemy. And that’s a very self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat your neighbor as your enemy, they’re going to become one.
We see this in a lot of emergency preparedness. There’s the prepper community who becomes extremely fanatic about it, and it turns other people off from the whole idea. You go to some events like emergency response training, and some of those present can be very fanatical about how awful it’s going to be. You find people who say they’re going to be storing guns in their earthquake kit, which turns off others to the whole idea. You get this obsessive scenario building that social breakdown is going to happen and that, when it does, you better have a gun to protect your water supply. Well, if that’s the way you talk about disaster preparedness, then you make it true.
Systems fail where they’re already weak. If our social system is our weak point, then we could get a social system collapse. What I’m trying to say is, let’s strengthen our social system because you’re going to be far more likely to recover well afterward. And, along the way, you get a better community!
Since I left the federal government, I started a nonprofit, The Center for Science and Society. One of the things we just got funding to do is to develop a program for community organizations to do earthquake readiness. We ask organizations like schools or churches or mosques what they can do to be stronger.
Take, for instance, a church that has a food locker in it. Say that that church has an old stove — as they tend to do — that pulls out of the wall during the shaking, and the broken gas line burns down the building. The burnt-down church is not serving anybody after the event, so all of those people who depend on it for food are out of luck. If instead they had done their own preparedness, and secured that stove, they would then be able to help much more of the community afterward.
And they’re more likely to help their members prepare, because you’re much more likely to do something that you’ve talked about with people you care for. Learning about earthquakes and preparing for them with your local groups is going to be more powerful than learning about it through messaging from the government. Then you get those organizations to connect to others in your local community. When all of these organizations communicate with each other about the resources they have and how they can help, it’s far more likely that they’re going to be recovering well after the event.
It patches everything, in a sense. Not only does the stove get secured to the wall, but multiple people would know to double check the stove to make sure the gas line isn’t broken.
Yes. And, along the way, you get a stronger, better community where people get to know each other better!
Returning to the threat posed by the San Andreas Fault, when it shifts 25 feet all at once, this will not be just a massive socioeconomic event regionally but a globally significant one. For example, a major quake would impact the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, through which an enormous amount of global trade occurs.
Well, the ports process 80 percent of the country’s container traffic and 40 percent of total imports. Most of what comes in goes out to the rest of the country on two railway lines, both of which will be cut off by the San Andreas earthquake.
The Big One will be a international disaster in this sense.
It absolutely will be, and even more so if it happens sooner rather than later. Again, American individualism is a core problem. The cost of retrofitting to prevent damage is considered to be an individual responsibility on the part of building owners. But the cost of not retrofitting falls to all of us. We haven’t figured out how to get past that distinctly American dichotomy.
One of the things I learned when I researched the book is this quintessentially American attitude toward disaster resilience. For example, in the 1927 Mississippi Floods, President Calvin Coolidge absolutely refused to consider any sort of individual aid because it was morally wrong to take tax money that had been collected from everybody and give it to just a few. So the government had no role in that disaster response, and it was solely up to the Red Cross.
We’ve evolved from that level of thinking, but only partially. We still see this real tension in American society between our individualist nature and the common good. Of course, we’ve had a strong narrative from the conservative side of our politics ever since Ronald Reagan that government is the problem, that there is no common good in what the government does. But what we’re talking about here can’t be done individually.
At least it was intellectually consistent when we have refused to give disaster aid. But now we have more complicated events, like what just happened in Houston with Hurricane Harvey. Houston refused to have any sort of land-use planning, letting people do whatever they wanted with their land — a very individualist approach. So people built all through the floodplains, and they had no rules about impermeable surfaces. Everything was paved over, and when the water fell, it had no place to go. The individualism expressed through Houston’s land use definitely contributed to the flooding, and yet afterward we all have to give aid to the victims of a disaster that could have been avoided if a more socially responsible plan had been in place.
It’s a basic challenge in our society as we evolve. How do we look at the individual versus the group? How do we take account of the common good? How do we work together? And we don’t talk about that anymore. We adopt political stances either for or against government regulation, instead of asking, “What shared responsibility do I have as an individual member of my society?”
Right, because it’s not like I as an individual can really fix all the problems with the aqueducts carrying water to Los Angeles across the San Andreas. How many times does it cross over?
Well, there are 36 crossings over four different aqueducts. There’s the Colorado River Aqueduct, which has multiple crossings. Then there’s the L.A. Aqueduct, which is the cleanest crossing, but it’s in a wooden tunnel that was built in 1908. The California Aqueduct breaks into two branches: the west branch has a clean crossing up near Fort Tejon, while the east branch goes multiple times across the fault and ends up coming, in the final crossing, into a hydroelectric power plant that’s in the San Andreas fault system. So …
Yeah, it’s a great one. That hydroelectric plant is a common good. We’ve all accepted that we need to have water and electricity. One of the conflicts in how to deal with these crossings is whether there’s even enough money. Then, if there is, do we spend the money on these fault crossings, or do we spend it on the Delta (i.e., the Delta Tunnels, an effort to modernize antiquated infrastructure that channels water from the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta into the state water project)? There’s pressure because it’s so hard to get the money to deal with the Delta issue, which is huge, and has kept us from really talking about the aqueduct crossings.
So, in conclusion, we’re all in this together.
Matt Tinoco is a journalist who lives in Los Angeles. His work has been published in Jezebel, Quartz, Vice, LA Weekly, and The Intercept.