10 Things We Learned From 'Earthquake Lady' Lucy Jones' Reddit AMA
Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the US Geological Survey, is the famously calm presence you see on TV any time there's a notable earthquake. Recently, she's been making a big push to bring her deep but accessible earthquake expertise to the internet: in the last few weeks she's joined Facebook and Twitter and yesterday she did a Reddit AMA. She debunked some of the useless myths that surround the still-mysterious phenomenon of earthquakes, but she also shared some facts about building codes in Southern California that left us feeling a bit...shaken.Here's just some of the wisdom we gleaned from the AMA:
Sorry but strict seismic codes don't make Southern California as safe as you think.
Okay, so this was the scary part of the AMA. You would think that all those strict seismic codes we've developed over the years would mean that we were totally prepared for the Big One. But those strict codes don't mean anything for all the buildings that were built before the codes were created: "Building codes are not retroactive. Your building is only as good as the code that was in place when it was built." Sure, some buildings are retrofitted, but Jones points out that retrofitting have never been required except in the most dangerous buildings: "unreinforced masonry buildings."
If you rent and are curious about whether you're living in a death trap, good luck: your landlord doesn't have to tell you anything: "Right now, there is no sure way of finding out how good a rented building is." Jones adds that earthquake experts like her are pushing for better disclosure: "One part of my project here at LA is to find a way to get that information to consumers so they can make their own choices about how safe they want their buildings to be."
On the whole, newer buildings are better than older ones. For right now, the only real guarantee that your building is built with the safest standards possible—without having to personally hire your own expert—is if it was built since 1997.
When there's an earthquake, do not run.
If you grew up in Southern California, you probably went through "duck and cover" drills in school. Turns out that advice is still pretty solid, although now they're calling it "Drop, Cover, and Hold On." Jones says that for many people, their first instinct is to run but that is actually more likely to land you in trouble. She suggests hiding under a table, "We've seen strong tables keep collapsed buildings off of people in earthquakes, but the most frequent injury in California is from falling objects or trying to run. Hiding under a table prevents both."
Oh and if you have come across that oddly-viral "Triangle Of Life" theory that suggests you don't hide under tables, Jones says the theory has "no validity whatsoever." She even offered a photo from the Mexico City earthquake the theory was based on that shows that tables survived the quake just fine.
Speaking of myths...
The idea of "earthquake weather" is totally bunk.
This has always sounded silly to us, but we still hear it. What's interesting is that the idea of earthquake weather is universal—though the cultures that suffer through earthquakes all have a different idea of what it entails:
To people who felt the Whittier Narrows earthquake, it is hot weather (how often is it hot in LA on Oct. 1??). To a previous generation that went through the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, it was dank weather - pretty common on March 10 in Long Beach. We want there to be a pattern because earthquakes would be less scary if we could say they only happen when the weather is ....
What you do after the shaking has stopped is important.
What you do in the moments after a bad quake could be crucial. If you survived falling objects and structural damage, the next thing to worry about is fires. Jones says they're usually caused by electrical problems (60%) or leaking gas (25%). If the power goes out, check on downed lamps and other items that could spark a fire before the power comes back on. Make sure your water heater is strapped to the wall (you can do that before a quake). If you smell gas, turn it off. Learn how to use a fire extinguisher: after a major quake, the fire department will probably be too busy to get to everyone who needs help.
We have had slightly fewer earthquakes than previous decades, but for better or for worse that doesn't really tell us anything about future quakes.
Angelenos of the 1980s and 1990s lived through a shaky era. We've had fewer earthquakes than usual, but Jones said it's not statistically significant: "We are not worried by the lack of earthquakes - when you are not having earthquakes, you are not having earthquakes." The gap between earthquakes isn't going to catch up with us. The big earthquakes are bound to happen one way or another.
When we have earthquakes, that does increase the chance of earthquakes. Jones says about 5-6% of earthquakes are followed by something larger within three days. At that point, your chance of an earthquake goes back to what it is normally is. But at the time, there's no way of knowing whether an earthquake is a foreshock to something bigger.
It's tricky to know how much fracking has anything to do with earthquakes in California.
Fracking itself doesn't cause earthquakes, but scientists have found that the leftover water and chemicals pumped into the earth does set off earthquakes. That's obvious on the East Coast where there are nearly 10 times more earthquakes. But it's trickier to figure out in California. First, Jones points out that oil companies don't have to report whether they're fracking. Second, she writes out we've been pumping oil for as long as we've been recording earthquakes, so we don't have a great baseline for figuring out just how much humans are making things worse in earthquake country.
Texting rather than calling your loved ones is your best bet after a big earthquake.
After a big disaster, it will probably be impossible to make a phone call. Jones says if you need to get in touch with someone, texts take less bandwith and they're more likely to go through. But Jones is working on a plan with the city to "understand what the most likely failure points will be so we can work to fix them before the earthquake."
An early warning system is on its way.
We can't predict quakes, but researchers are working on a system to let people know that an earthquake is on its way. The further away you are from the epicenter, the more notice you can get, which will be especially important for the big earthquakes. This could give us time to get out of harm's way and give utilities warning to power down, for instance. The project still needs funding to improve the software, but Jones said once that's in place it should take 1-2 years to roll it out. If you're interested in helping out with research on how to structure the phone app, do this survey from the University of Kentucky's School of Risk Communication.
Reporters ask a lot of silly questions after the quake (sorry, we're reading up on this for next time!)
Her favorite? "How many unknown faults are there?"
Finally: there's no escape from earthquakes in Los Angeles.
Someone asked if there were some areas of Los Angeles that are better to live in than others from a seismic perspective. Not really! Jones writes, "Everywhere in LA is within 10 miles of an active fault, so we are all in this together."
Things You Might Not Have Known About The Northridge Earthquake
Here's A Scary, Searchable Map Of 1,451 L.A. Buildings That Might Collapse In A Big Earthquake
Earthquake Retrofitting Cost Could Fall Completely to Tenants