The Comforting Seismo-Moms

Beyond any contest, they prove what no politician or economist, no billion-dollar freeway network or water system has been able to: that the San Fernando Valley is indeed linked body and soul to Santa Monica, that what happens in Whittier reaches from the foothills to the harbor.

Earthquake faults? Oh sure, those too.

But I also mean those counterforces of nature, Pasadena's Earthquake Ladies, the Seismo-Moms, Dr. Kate and Dr. Lucy, Hutton and Jones, the two faces Southern California longs to see once the stemware has stopped diving off the shelves and the landscape has ceased to ripple like wind in the ground.

Fame follows function. This is perhaps Caltech's best-known duo since Einstein and Millikan argued physics among the olive trees 60 years ago. Their radioed-televised reassurances settle bets ("Felt like a 3.6 to me") and settle nerves ("Caltech says it's just an aftershock"). Ultimately, Lucy Jones has come to understand that in spite of the hard science credentials strung out after their names like kite tails, when the microphones show up, "we're not there to be scientists. We're there to be psychologists."

This pair, two of the most visible women on local television, have no agents, no residuals, no handlers. After Jones did a quake preparedness show for kids at Disneyland--"I taught the Three Little Pigs, who'd already learned about sturdy construction from a wolf"--a Disney rep told her (and you decide who is flattering whom here) that "Kate and I are sort of like Disneyland, in that we're part of Southern California culture."

She's right, of course. I was surprised that, when Kato Kaelin heard thumps on the wall and thought it was an earthquake, he ambled outside to look, instead of turning to Kate and Lucy, as the rest of us do.

Sometimes, says Hutton, "I think people need someone to hold their hand. They're not listening to what you're saying, they're just seeing you're not freaking out. I think one reason Lucy and I are so popular with the public is we fit into that mother archetype, and your mother's there to take care of you."

"And it's OK to be out of control," says Jones, "if your mother's there."

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Jones works in the U.S. Geological Survey's Caltech offices, a 89-year-old-bolted-to-the-foundation clapboard home as demure as a sorority house at a Seven Sisters college, with a fanlight and wooden floors. Hutton labors across the street, in a Caltech seismo lab cubicle hard by the computers and printers and monitors that she consults to make sense of the shakes.

Hutton is a dog-mom; she and her border collie Conan star in the 1995 Pasadena Humane Society's calendar, which she keeps at work. Jones is a boy-mom; the artwork of one son hangs on her office door, alongside an aphorism from Iris J. Martinez that both women use in their lectures: "An earthquake is the way that the Earth relieves its stress by transferring it to the people who live on it."

And to the people who study it.

Doctors and dentists get used to party guests pushing up a sleeve to ask about a rash, or yanking down a jaw to inquire about an impacted wisdom tooth. Jones and Hutton, often mistaken for each other anyway get the same--for how can there possibly be more than one Earthquake Lady at the boys' town that is Caltech? Every conversation, every transaction, with the dog trainer, the dry cleaner, is prefaced by quake questions. People ask Hutton, "'Is my house safe?' I don't even know where they live."

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How do they do it at 6 a.m., 9 p.m., live, unrehearsed?

I've imagined them like firefighters in the movies, living above the shop, sliding down the fire pole into a full set of clothes and vaulting into the seismo lab, camera-ready. Hutton, who lives closest, usually arrives first, but they all have beepers, set to go off at a 3.0 during the day, a 3.5 at night, with magnitude, epicenter and other data that tells them whether they go should back to sleep or back to work.

The staff takes turns on call, toting the satchel of equipment--cell phone, modem, computer--they call "the football." If you think scientists have no sense of humor, "the football" is the Secret Service nickname for the briefcase that contains nuclear launch codes and goes wherever the President goes.

If seismology is still an obscure science elsewhere, it is less obscure in Los Angeles, thanks in part to them. They have added to our vocabulary words such as sub-events, fault plain and slip-strike. And Hutton almost never gets asked anymore when we're going to fall into the ocean; "I used to get that all the time."

Two million copies of a handbook for the public will find their way into regional libraries next month. In its 32 pages of earthquake science and advice will be a list of myths like "earthquake weather."

Like any institution, they too have accumulated myths.

It only took once for Jones to carry a son on her hip at a quake briefing, and suddenly she became "the one who always brings your kids to the press conferences."

And there's a radio station that insists that every time Kate Hutton gets a haircut, there's an earthquake.

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