Lucile Jones, an internationally known seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is literally leading groundbreaking research on earthquakes and turning it into public action that will save lives and property.
Through countless interviews, public lectures and local government meetings, Jones has communicated her science in ways that have made it possible for communities, states and the federal government to take preventive measures to shore up critical infrastructure and to be better prepared to respond if a major earthquake occurs.
“Her objective is not just to deliver science, but to explain to decision-makers and policymakers how they can better handle natural disasters and, in particular, earthquakes,” said Rob Graves, a USGS seismologist. “She is not doing science for the sake of science, but actually getting the information into broader use where it will benefit society.”
Jones has done path-breaking research on estimating the short-term probability of foreshock and aftershock sequences, which have become the basis of all earthquake advisories issued by the state of California.
With this and other scientific information on earthquakes in hand, Jones has built partnerships with engineers, social scientists, biologists, geographers, public health doctors, emergency managers, public utilities and public officials to develop comprehensive depictions of the probable consequences of catastrophic natural disasters.
These detailed disaster simulations include the ShakeOut scenario, which delineates the devastating effects of a potential southern San Andreas Fault earthquake; the ARkStorm Scenario of a California statewide winter storm; and the SAFRR Tsunami Scenario to describe the California impact of an Alaskan tsunami. These depictions have been used by governments and the private sector to understand the hazards and take action to reduce risk.
“She developed a simulation that takes an earthquake that is likely to occur in the future and would have significant consequences, and predicts everything from the ground moving and the likely damages to buildings to the emergency response needs and repercussions on rapid transit, water systems and telecommunications,”’ said William Leith, the USGS senior science advisor for earthquake hazards.
In Los Angeles, where she was on detail as the science advisor for seismic safety to Mayor Eric Garcetti, Jones brought together city officials and leaders in academia, industry and business to address the earthquake risk and develop an action plan based on her analysis of the earthquake hazards and vulnerabilities.
Based on her work, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is replacing the tunnel that brings the water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct across the San Andreas Fault. Southern California Edison spent $20 million to evaluate the impact on their systems of the earthquake scenario she devised and to develop priorities for improvements. Policies now are being put in place in the city for retrofitting older buildings that are highly susceptible to damage, in the event of a strong earthquake.
In December 2014, Garcetti praised Jones for her leadership and said her “Resilience by Design” report will be translated into laws that make residents of the city safer. “It’s designed so that public officials, property owners and tenants can come together to strengthen Los Angeles against a known and major threat to life, property and our economy,” said the mayor.
One major result of Jones’ ShakeOut scenario has been an educational campaign that has spread across the country.
Started in 2008 in Southern California based on the magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault described in the ShakeOut Scenario, a ShakeOut Drill has grown to become the largest public safety drill in the world, with more than 26.5 million participants in 2014.
In the 2008 drill in California, there were events at schools, medical facilities, government offices, museums, corporate facilities, private homes and other locations, with mock victims, emergency responders, evacuations and other activities to simulate the real event.
Such drills now are held in 20 regions of the country, helping to change the culture of preparedness. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Office of Emergency Services use her simulations as a basis for planning to handle an earthquake in Southern California.
“I don’t know how you put a dollar figure on it, but her work has helped mitigate substantial risks facing Americans in earthquake-prone areas, particularly in Southern California, and has helped decision-makers make better policies and take better precautions to respond to natural disasters and especially earthquakes,” said Suzette Kimball, the acting director of the USGS.
Jones joined the USGS in 1983. The roots of her interest in public service can be found in her own family life. Her grandparents were missionaries in China and her father, an engineer, was part of the team that built the Apollo 13 lunar module.
Jones said she believes a lack of clear communication of the risk leads to a lack of preparation, and that can result in catastrophe. While scientists like herself are not in the business of making policy, Jones said, she feels a strong obligation to “make information from our science understandable by non-scientists so that it can be used to support others in making our region safer in the inevitable natural disasters.”