Over the years, as she has spoken to the press, she has learned that scientific accuracy is not the top priority after a serious quake--rather people want to be reassured. "People are far more afraid of earthquakes in proportion to the risk they actually pose to their lives," she says. Statistics from the National Safety Council show that an American's lifetime odds of dying in an earthquake is about one in 120,000--by comparison, dying in a transportation accident is 1,500 times more likely.
Jones says her ability to relieve anxiety was never intentional but is something she has thought about after the fact. "My theory is that people are afraid of earthquakes because they are out of [their] control. But seismologists give it a name and a number and a fault, and this puts it back in the box of controllable experiences. Even if an individual doesn't understand what happened, somebody does." In her move to a more explicitly comforting role, she thinks being a woman has helped--"I think that part of it is the female image in the situation. You feel better when Mommy tells you it's okay." After a second she adds, "It's the only time that being a woman in science has been a help!"
The reassuring approach that Jones embodies was missing in the recent hurricane relief efforts. "What happened to FEMA wasn't a surprise," she opines. "They have taken that agency and moved it into Homeland Security, told everybody in the agency that what they're working on is terrorism, and people with interest in natural disasters left [their jobs] if they could." She notes that in the current political climate "terrorism matters more than natural disasters." Jones worries that she and her colleagues have lost the attention of emergency managers, even though "a lot of the things you do in response to earthquakes are the same as you do in response to terrorism," such as training first responders and ensuring efficient communications channels.
Jones recently turned 50, and as she has progressed in her career she's become more involved in issues surrounding the earthquake threat in California. She just completed a term as chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission, a political appointment made by Governor Gray Davis. The commission, an independent board, advises state officials on matters affecting earthquake safety. Members review all legislation, such as those for construction codes, and offer their advice.
One issue revolved around a money-saving proposal to exempt community colleges from the Field Act, which requires stronger construction of schools. It costs 3 percent more to build tougher buildings, and one survey after an earthquake found the damage to Field Act buildings was only 0.3 percent of the value of a building versus 18 percent for non-Field Act buildings. Jones and the commission used such statistics to dissuade lawmakers from exempting the colleges, although Jones expects the bill to be resubmitted.
"It's a real eye-opening experience for me, to see how things don't help people until there's legislation about them," remarks Jones, who is also a member of the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, a body that examines specific predictions of temblors. Come the next midsize quake in California, or even the Big One, bet on Lucy Jones doing her part--not only explaining the science but also soothing the soul.
This article was originally published with the title Easing Jitters when Buildings Rumble.