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How a Pasadena Seismologist is the Voice of Calm When the Earth Shakes

Pasadena resident Dr. Lucy Jones, a world-renowned seismologist, is the voice of calm when the earth shakes.

By Brandon Lomenzo Black, Photo Courtesy Of Dr. Lucy Jones Center For Science And Society

Southern California has never gone more than 12 hours without experiencing an earthquake. With such frequency of shaking in a region populated by 23 million people, many of whom are well aware that a rupture along the San Andreas Fault is long overdue, it’s common to wonder, When is “the Big One” coming?

While no seismologist can predict the when of an impending earthquake, rest assured that when the ground begins to shake, Pasadena resident and world-renowned seismologist Lucy Jones, who holds a doctorate in geophysics, will be a comforting presence throughout the news cycle.

“What keeps me doing interview after interview is the recognition of how the science can really help people make better decisions,” Jones says. “­The most satisfying part … is being able to help people cope when a natural disaster happens.”

Her delivery of information is authoritative and comprehensible (free of technicalities foreign to the average listener), which has endeared her to many SoCal residents over the years. Meanwhile, Jones’ worldwide research, conducted at natural disaster sites from Japan and New Zealand to Chile and Afghanistan, has made her an indispensable expert whom the media calls upon whenever an earthquake strikes.

“Instead of focusing on the when a natural disaster such as an earthquake will occur,” Jones says, “what’s better for society is to understand the what and to think about natural disasters in a different way.”

Such understanding, she hopes, will catalyze the public, first responders and civic leadership’s decision-making abilities and resiliency planning efforts.

Avoiding catastrophe, if you will, is a theme in Jones’ new book, “­ e Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (And What We Can Do About ­Them),” which examines 11 significant natural disasters and how each has reshaped societies, economies and governments as a result.

­The book is organized chronologically, starting with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii in A.D. 79, and culminating with the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which resulted in the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

­The self-described introvert—ironic, given her poise and confident demeanor when interviewed live on TV whenever the earth shakes—Jones honed her expertise as a statistical seismologist during 33 years of public service at the U.S. Geological Survey.

She has been a research associate at the Seismological Laboratory of Caltech since 1984 and leads the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society.

She and her husband, Egill Hauksson, himself a seismologist at Caltech, have called Pasadena home since 2011. Previously they lived in La Cañada Flintridge where they raised their two sons, Sven and Niels, both of whom are scientists in chemistry and physics, respectively.

“[Pasadena] is the place that feels like home, much more to me than La Cañada did,” Jones says. “It’s a wonderful community. ­There’s a strong intellectual component to it [with JPL and Caltech] and it’s a beautiful place to live.”


THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1861-62

The worst natural disaster in California-state history — caused not by an earthquake or a wildfire but by flooding — in the winter of 1861-62, decimated burgeoning industries and killed thousands in its wake. Many cities and towns were destroyed; the state capital was temporarily moved from Sacramento to San Francisco. The Golden State went bankrupt.

Lasting 45 days in total beginning in December 1861, California was inundated with record-breaking or near-record rainfall. No region of the state was spared. The Central Valley and Sacramento area, in particular, experienced some of the worst flooding and costliest damages to key economic drivers like farming and agriculture in addition to significant population loss.

Surrounded by the Northern and Southern Coastal Ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Central Valley’s flatlands were flooded by 30 feet of water covering an area that spread 300 miles.

In Sacramento, the newly elected governor and later, founder of Stanford University, Leland Stanford, had to hitch a ride on a rowboat to his inauguration as the city was submerged in eight feet of water due to the American River breaching its levee and entrapped by the Sacramento River levee which had retained the water.

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