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Known as the go-to person after temblors, she’s leaving post but not her work
Later this month, the U.S. Geological Survey will say goodbye to retiring seismologist Lucy Jones.
While the federal agency is losing one of its best-known figures, her next role is a win for Southern California.
Jones, the face of the USGS following most major earthquakes in the past 30 years, isn’t retiring from her work on earthquakes. Instead, she wants to start a nonprofit where she can bridge the gap between the scientific and political worlds to help policymakers make more informed decisions.
“First, I was a researcher, then I moved toward communication, and then, recently, I’ve moved closer to the policymaker, really holding their hand and feeding them information,” she said. “Essentially, I want to keep that process going and really be there in that implementation gap.”
Her work might help Southern California cities protect their aging infrastructures from devastation in an earthquake and could help save thousands of lives in the event of a massive one. She said she wants to educate policymakers about earthquakes and climate change, then help them implement changes. Over the years, Jones has become synonymous with earthquakes. In 1992, she famously gave television interviews following the 6.1-magnitude Joshua Tree earthquake while holding her sleeping son. Since then, she’s become the media’s go-to expert following most temblors.
Recently, her stint as the earthquake czar for Los Angeles Mayor
JONES » PAGE 8
Lucy Jones announced Friday her retirement from the U.S. Geological Survey at Caltech’s Seismological Laboratory.
Eric Garcetti showed her how science could be used more effectively in policy decisions. But, she can’t do more of that type of work while she’s a federal employee, she said.
USGS explicitly tells its scientists when they’re writing papers to avoid making policy recommendations, she said.
“There are a lot of good research scientists; they don’t need me doing that,” she said of her retirement from USGS. “We have a wonderful team of young scientists that are doing amazing work, and when I’m not here, they’re going to step in and fill that role.”
Change from inside
For decades, scientists have worried about how Los Angeles and surrounding communities would hold up when the “Big One” hits. They wrote paper after paper showing the need for stronger construction standards, retrofitting and community preparation. Their message was simple, but scary: fix this, or thousands could die. It wasn’t always heard, or understood.
Jones often carried that message to lawmakers and the public, but she couldn’t push for specific policies.
But last year, the USGS tried something different. It embedded Jones in Los Angeles’ city hall, where she worked closely with Garcetti’s administration. She met with stakeholders and policymakers to explain the dangers directly.
And it seems to have paid off.
In October, the city unanimously passed a monumental retrofitting plan that mandates the strengthening of nearly 15,000 structures likely to collapse during a strong earthquake.
“We’ve known there has been a problem for 40 years,” said Tom Heaton, a professor of geophysics and civil engineering at Caltech. “This is the most solid progress I’ve seen, in the last year, and quite a bit of that progress has been made with Lucy’s involvement.”
The buildings in question — nonductile concrete and soft-story structures — could collapse from a Northridge- type earthquake. That particular quake in 1994 destroyed 200 soft-story buildings. The damage at one apartment complex killed 16 people.
The retrofitting in Los Angeles could prevent even more deaths.
“As Dr. Lucy Jones has famously said, ‘Earthquakes are inevitable, but disasters are not’,” Garcetti said in a statement. “Her work with us over the past two years was essential to L.A.’s passage of the nation’s strongest retrofitting ordinance. I wish her the best in her retirement from the U.S. Geological Survey, knowing she will bring her passion to new and pressing challenges.”
Those challenges, however, mean that Jones has to retire.
“What I learned from working in the city of Los Angeles is the power of actually changing outcomes,” she said. “There’s 192 other cities in Southern California that could use the same information, the same approach.”
Some of those cities have been reaching out to the USGS. However, it doesn’t have the funding or authority to tackle that problem, she said.
“Many cities have come to us wanting help like we did with Los Angeles. That’s not what Congress wants us to do,” she said. “So what I’m looking forward to is being able to see who wants to fund it locally and creating whatever size program the community wants. Obviously, I can’t do that as a federal employee and I can’t start the fundraising.”
A little break
Though she’s taking on a new challenge, Jones also is looking forward to more free time, she said.
The 61-year-old seismologist is the same age as her mother when she died. Jones’ son is reaching an age where grandchildren seem likely, she said. Her retirement not only opens up new opportunities, it gives her more time with her family and her other passions.
There’s a book she’s been wanting to write and music she wants to perform, she said.
Though she’s staying on as a visiting researcher at Caltech, her colleagues at the USGS office on campus said she’ll be missed.
“Lucy has been a great inspiration to me as a scientist,” said Kate Scharer, a research geologist with the USGS. “Her direct approach to problems and her willingness to compromise to achieve results is impressive.”
Scharer said she’s worked with Jones for 15 years, first as a Ph.D. student, then as a colleague at USGS. Jones’ ability to break down complex science into easy to understand information has made her invaluable, to both the agency and the public.
Jones leaves behind some big shoes to fill, Scharer said. Though Scharer said she did not want to speak for Jones about the seismologist’s future, she said Southern California is prominent in that next step.
“I think Southern California will continue to benefit from Lucy’s activities,” she said.
“There are a lot of good research scientists; they don’t need me doing that. We have a wonderful team of young scientists that are doing amazing work, and when I’m not here, they’re going to step in and fill that role.”
— Lucy Jones said of her retirement from USGS
By Jason Henry
firstname.lastname@example.org @JasonMHenry on Twitter
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