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It's a big task for Lucy Jones: preparing us for the Big One

Building MaterialGavin Newsom

My thinking on earthquakes goes something like this:

If Lucy Jones won't do something, I won't either.

She once refused to consider buying a house that was in a fault-study zone. And here's another no-no from Earthquake Lucy.

"I would not live in an unretrofitted concrete building. Those are the worst killers around the world."

INVESTIGATION: Concrete risks

But of course, thousands of people in greater Los Angeles live and work in such buildings. And despite warnings that go back decades, we are nowhere near coming up with a plan to make them safe.

Jones, a Caltech seismologist, is about a month into a new job. Instead of conducting research and urging us to prepare for the Big One, she's now charged with getting us prepared. Jones was recruited by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to spend the next year coming up with a strategy.

"I'm alternating between thinking this is the most important thing I've done in my whole career and thinking it's the most terrifying thing I've done," Jones said last week.

A short history lesson explains her fear.

It took years, starting in the 1970s, to retrofit L.A.'s brick buildings. After the Northridge quake killed 57 people in 1994, then-Councilman Hal Bernson, who led the way on bricks, wanted to require similar retrofitting of concrete buildings, but he ran into opposition from building owners and a lack of interest from city officials.

FULL COVERAGE: California earthquakes

"I don't know how I got it through the first time, the way things work," Bernson said last week about the brick retrofitting. "It must have been a miracle."

Last year, The Times began doing City Hall's work for it, identifying dangerously under-reinforced buildings. The series also exposed how major developments had been approved without adequate study of nearby faults, including a large project in population-dense Hollywood.

But there's been no consensus on what to do. Neither tenants and renters, nor developers and building owners, want to get stuck with hefty retrofitting bills, and those forces have enough clout to force a City Hall stall.

Jones was better off when she could just worry about tectonic plates, which move faster than politicians do.

"I don't intend to come up with a financing model," Jones said. "My job is to determine what's needed."

That's not necessarily as simple as it sounds, she told me. Even among engineers, "There's a lot of uncertainty in the field about what makes a building bad" and what has to be done to make it safe. Part of her work so far, she said, has been to study what other cities have done, and Jones thinks San Francisco has a lot to teach us.

While Los Angeles spent years doing nothing, San Francisco spent years crafting the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety, pulling together all interested parties and producing a 30-year readiness and retrofitting plan that's already being implemented. Billions of dollars will be spent, the costs shared by various parties, with the city offering financing incentives.

"When the ground shakes and buildings fall," then-Mayor Gavin Newsom wrote in a 2010 directive, "the damage and displacement of residents impacts the whole city. Loss of housing, tent camps, economic devastation, fires — these afflictions don't discriminate between neighborhoods or blocks."

That's a scenario Jones knows a little bit about.

The danger in a big quake isn't limited to unretrofitted buildings, she said. Take Hollywood, for example. Such structures might be the first to fall in a big San Andreas quake, and they would certainly be toppled in a Big One on the Hollywood fault. But their collapse would also damage nearby retrofitted buildings, not to mention pedestrians and people in vehicles. Aside from multiple deaths and injuries, Jones predicts that power and water lines could be knocked out for months, threatening communication and firefighting capabilities.

These are scenarios that we understandably don't care to dwell on. We may briefly consider earthquake insurance at the 20-year anniversary of the 57 deaths in the Northridge quake, or the three-year anniversary of the Fukushima monster that killed thousands.

But then we're quickly back to the bliss of denial.

A bit of education could go a long way, Jones said, and she offered a tip for keeping everyone focused on the need to be better prepared.

Take a look at the mountains.

"I look up at those San Gabes that are so steep, beyond the angle of repose, because earthquakes are pushing them up faster than erosion is bringing them down.... That's what makes California California.

"I'm really passionate about Southern California. I'm fourth generation, and my great-grandparents are literally buried in the San Andreas fault. I want my sixth- and seventh- and eighth-generation descendants to go on living here, and we are here because of earthquakes," Jones said.

"We wouldn't have the mountains, we wouldn't have the moisture from the mountains holding back the ocean air. Without faults, we would not have oil, and the beginning of California was all about oil."

I told Jones a story Hal Bernson told me about the big 1952 Bakersfield earthquake. He looked out the window of his clothing store at the time and saw his Ford truck several feet off the ground.

He was not imagining things, Jones said. That potential is always there, and she said she could scientifically guarantee that we'll have another major earthquake at some point.

"But the overwhelming majority of damage is preventable," Earthquake Lucy said. "If you choose to do it."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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