When renowned earthquake expert Dr. Lucy Jones took the stage at the Red Cross Whole Community Resiliency panel on Sept. 17 at the California Community Foundation, the title of her talk was “Imagine America Without Los Angeles.”
“That really is a possibility, and as a fourth-generation Southern Californian, I don’t want to see it happen,” said Jones, a Caltech and U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who has authored more than 100 research papers. “I want to convince you that we can take actions now to change that outcome.”
The event, which was sponsored by the Red Cross Los Angeles Region and Southern California Grantmakers, featured Jones along with a panel of academic, government, business, and philanthropic leaders who shared strategies for preparing the entire region for natural and man-made risks (earthquakes, fires, drought, and pandemics).
Red Cross L.A. Region CEO Jarrett Barrios discussed how whole community resiliency involves collaboration between non-profits, government agencies, corporations, philanthropists and individuals in an effort to mitigate the effects of disasters.
“For the American Red Cross, what that means is a community and its parts,” Barrios said. “Its parts include families, businesses and non-profit organizations, as well as its systems and networks that can come together and get that community back on track after a major catastrophic event.”
So what would constitute a major catastrophic event? In her talk, Jones described the consequences of a hypothetical but plausible 7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas Fault in Southern California. The statistics Jones provided for this hypothetical event would be staggering: there could be as many as 1,800 deaths, 53,000 injured and 1,500 collapsed buildings. There could be no water, electricity, or gas for months. If response and recovery systems are inadequate, business disruption could send the region into a prolonged economic depression.
“We are always saying we don’t predict earthquakes,” said Jones, whose scientific knowledge and charismatic approach to speaking about seismology has earned her an enormous following. “Well, we don’t predict the time of earthquakes. We can predict the consequences of earthquakes really well.”
Jones has recently been tasked by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to serve as his administration’s Science Advisor on Seismic Safety. In this role, Jones is working to improve earthquake resilience for Los Angeles, including developing recommendations to upgrade the city’s water delivery infrastructure, firefighting capabilities, communications infrastructure and buildings.
“We need to talk about urban disaster resilience – meaning a society that still functions after the earthquake -- and that is a challenge,” Jones said. “It requires several different pieces. We need to be able to protect the lives of our citizens. We need to make sure that we can respond. We need to make sure we have the water to fight the fires. We need to make sure we have communications to support our emergency management. And we need to have a core critical capability to keep that going.”
But all that is easier said than done, and Jones described the complexity of solving these issues for the City of Los Angeles.
“We can’t solve everything,” Jones said. “So how do we approach this? We can’t do everything. What do we need to do? We’ve identified a set of critical infrastructure that has to be able to work to some extent to be able to keep going.”
Rob Freeman, Operations Division Chief at the City of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department, talked about the city’s new Emergency Operations Center, which is the focal point for coordination of the city’s emergency planning, training, response and recovery efforts.
“We are the lead in the recovery process in the city, so we try to create mechanisms for transferring rapidly from response to recovery,” Freeman said.
Jeff Reeb, Director of Emergency Management at the Chief Executive Office for the County of Los Angeles, said that the government’s response capabilities must be matched by citizen preparedness.
“My message is to encourage people to be self-reliant in their own homes, then think about your neighbors on the street. Resiliency has to start at the very local level -- like your doorknob level -- and then go from there,” said Reeb.
Other panelists at the Whole Community Resiliency event described some of their own organizations’ efforts in preparedness, response and recovery.
Bill Ahmanson, President of the Ahmanson Foundation, addressed the role of philanthropy in response to major catastrophes.
“Disaster after disaster, one thing that happens is that money comes pouring in, and then it trickles down and it stops,” Ahmanson said. “What’s important in the beginning is to help those you can help, but then go back six months or a year later, and see what those communities need. We need to keep our eye on the back end.”
Rob Harden, Head of Catastrophe Claims for Farmers Insurance, talked about the vital importance of homeowners securing adequate coverage.
“As you look at preparedness on a very large scale, people are simply only prepared for what has happened recently,” Harden said. “I think it’s critically important that the message get out there – are you prepared for a major event?”
Hector Madariaga, Director of Emergency Services for the Southern California Gas Company, discussed the matter of safety after a major trembler.
“The real issue is going to be homes that are damaged and how quickly can we get in there to make sure the system is safe?” Madariaga said. “Our policy is that whenever there’s an earthquake or damage, we want to make sure to go in there and inspect and make sure it’s safe. We encourage people to know where their gas lines are, and if they smell gas, we encourage people to get out because it’s a sign that you may have an explosive situation.”
For Jones, it’s not a matter of if there will be a major catastrophic event, but when. And preparedness is key.
"We cannot control the earthquake or its shaking, but we can control the outcomes,” Jones said. “What communities do to prepare before the earthquake will determine the outcome afterward, and all communities in L.A. must be ready for an earthquake greater than anything seen in over a century."