Planning For—And Surviving—‘The Big Ones’

17:32 minutes

Graphic of Los Angeles skyline separated by earthquake
Credit: Los Angeles, via Shutterstock. Graphic by Brandon Echter.

In 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano spit up an ash cloud so large it grounded airplanes throughout the North Atlantic and Europe. The travel disruption made big news at the time, but the eruption was just a shadow of a much earlier, much deadlier eruption on the island in 1783—the eruption of Laki.

The Laki eruption lasted eight months, blanketing parts of the island in lava flows 50 feet deep, and spewing noxious gases that devastated crops and poisoned livestock. Tens of thousands died in Iceland, but the eruption killed millions more around the world, when ash from the eruption cooled the Earth, ushering in an icy winter, and weakening monsoons across Africa and Asia.

[You know who had a pretty good pair of eyebrows? Darwin.]

In her new book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them), seismologist Lucy Jones describes the devastation of Laki and other geological disasters. She joins Ira to discuss natural calamities throughout human history, from Pompeii to Fukushima, and why humans have such trouble planning for and responding to the uncertainty of natural disasters.

Read an excerpt of The Big Ones here.

Segment Guests

Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones is the author of The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) (Doubleday, 2018). She’s also a seismologist at Caltech and the Founder and Chief Scientist of the Dr Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, based in Pasadena, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In 2010, a volcano in Iceland spit up a cloud of ash so big it grounded airplanes across Europe and the North Atlantic. You remember that? Oh, yeah. It made big news because we’re not used to having a volcano dictate our flight schedules. But that was nothing compared to a much bigger, much deadlier eruption several hundred years before. It was called the Laki eruption in 1783 and ’84 in Iceland. It spewed lava and noxious gases for eight months, killing more than 10,000 people in Iceland.

But the eruption killed millions more around the world, because all of that ash chilled the planet, disrupting monsoons, ushering in a deadly winter. And yet it’s largely forgotten today.

And if you ask Californians what’s the worst natural disaster to ever occur in the state, a lot of them are going to point to the 1996 San Francisco earthquake. But in fact, the worst disaster was not an earthquake, but a flood– 1861 to ’62– that made a deep lake out of California’s Central Valley. But just try to find a Californian who knew about that.

Those are just a few of the incredible stories of natural disasters seismologist Lucy Jones writes about in her new book, The Big Ones– How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us and What We Can Do About Them. The book describes not only what happened during the great quakes and tsunamis and eruptions, but what happened next. And the psychology behind planning for uncertain tragedies– why are we so prone to forget the past and prepare for the future?

Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Jones.

DR. LUCY JONES: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now let’s talk about– this was absolutely fascinating. I mean, there’s a lot of great stuff in your book. I love the book. But I was just blown away by the California flood story, the natural disaster, the biggest one. Tell us about what that was about.

DR. LUCY JONES: Well, I also had no idea that it happened, even though I’m a fourth generation Southern Californian, until we went to make a scenario, a model of what we thought a big flood would be like. And I’m asking the hydrologists, and they tell me about this. It’s sort of hard to believe. It rained over the whole state– in fact, it’s also the worst rain event ever in Oregon and Nevada, as well. It created a 300 mile long lake down the Central Valley. It moved the mouth of the Santa Ana River by six miles. It completely destroyed, washed away, the largest town between Los Angeles and New Mexico, a place that was Agua Mansa.

It was a level of devastation that is extraordinary. It destroyed one third of the taxable land. Killed 1% of the population. Destroyed the ranching industry by drowning all the cattle. So it’s sort of the ultimate catastrophe, the one that really changes the nature of the society that’s there.

And yet, you know, we forgot. And the interesting thing is when we go, look, how could you possibly forget these sort of things? The psychologists have some pretty good explanations for it. There’s something called a normalization bias, because when we were evolving into human beings, if you’re worried about the 100 year flood instead of the wolf who was about to eat your children, your DNA didn’t get passed down. And we’re very hardwired to look at the most recent disasters and forget about the longer term ones.

IRA FLATOW: So we still think about an earthquake and not about a flood?


IRA FLATOW: Because you say that one is going to happen again, as certain as another big earthquake is going to hit California.

DR. LUCY JONES: Oh, absolutely. And you know, there’s also the issue that earthquakes are more frightening to us because they are so random and we don’t see them coming. Where as the rain, right, we can predict the rain. You see the water coming. I mean, who’s afraid of the rain, right? And we just can’t get our mind around the ideas that our floods are as dangerous as earthquakes.

IRA FLATOW: Now, a report came out this week called the HayWired Scenario about the Hayward Fault. The HayWired– Hayward Fault, HayWired, I get it– in eastern San Francisco Bay. Give us the lowdown on that report.

DR. LUCY JONES: Well, that’s actually like the scenario we created for the big flood and the shakeout scenario, which was the Southern California version. It was started before I left the USGS. It reminds us that when the fault runs right through a city, you get a very different level of damage. And that proximity to the fault really does exacerbate the damage. So this is more like the Kanto earthquake, which destroyed Tokyo in 1923. The fault was literally under the city, and 60% of the buildings in Tokyo were gone afterwards.

The Hayward Fault similarly runs right through the East Bay, and it’s going to cause much more damage than earthquakes on faults just a little ways away.

IRA FLATOW: And you mention, when you look back at the history of the 1861 flood and the other earthquakes, that California was relatively sparse. You know, over 100 years ago. But if something like this is going to happen and be inevitable, how much more dire the future is going to be than what happened even before.

DR. LUCY JONES: Well, right. I mean, we have a much greater population. 1% of the population that was killed in that flood was 4,000 people. We now have 40 million people living here. I don’t think we’re killing 400,000. But we have also increased our vulnerabilities, because of all the systems we put in place to support urban life. We are now incredibly dependent on electricity, where if it goes away people literally die. Or the flood control that we have put in to protect ourselves from those floods– and one of the reasons that we forget that California has such a flood problem.

But think about last winter where the Oroville dam came close to failing. A bit more rain– if it had failed, we could have been killing many thousands of people just right there.

IRA FLATOW: And now I know that you’ve worked with the LA City Hall to develop an earthquake resilience plan, right? What are some of the measures that have been adopted, and what do you think should happen?

DR. LUCY JONES: OK. What I think, and mostly what happened in LA, are actually pretty close. It was a very satisfying experience to have the science come together with policy. Number one is remembering that building codes aren’t retroactive. So your building is only as good as the building codes in place when it was built. And there are a lot of known killer buildings, and we need to strengthen those. And that’s going on in Los Angeles now.

A second one is our infrastructure, this thing idea that we’ve created this urban life that’s very dependent on systems that, when they break in a big disaster, are going to cause catastrophic health problems and such things. So strengthening our water system, our sewer system, our electrical system. And all of that’s gotten started in LA, and we’re starting to see it some other places as well.

And then the third thing, and in some ways this is the most important even though it’s not our lives. You know, when we think about disasters, the randomness makes us very afraid of dying, and it keeps us very focused on the moment. But even in Pompeii, 90% of the victims got out alive. So you’re not going to die in this earthquake, almost undoubtedly. 99.99% chance you’re living through it. But the question is going to be will our city survive it? What is it going to be like to be in Southern California, or any other big city when the disaster really disrupts the systems? And people may not die, but they may very well just give up and leave.

So we need to address our economic vulnerabilities, and not consider it solely a life safety issue. There’s a great thing happening here in California where the state legislature is actually considering a bill to take our building code, which now says make sure you crawl out alive, but if it’s a total financial loss, well that’s your problem. Raise it up to a standard that says, we don’t want disposable buildings. We want to be able to use our buildings after the event. And raising the standard like that would only add about 1% to the cost of construction. So the state is considering a move to make that mandatory now.

IRA FLATOW: You write it very well in your book about some famous disasters in history, and some people, some of the key people, who actually rose to the occasion and changed the course of history.

DR. LUCY JONES: That was one of the most exciting things of this to me, was to see both how people handled it really well. And of course, in some places where they handled it poorly. And there’s such great consequences to it. I mean, especially you were talking about the Iceland eruption. This figure of the pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, who is a hero in Iceland as the fire priest. He was helping his congregation get ready to leave, because the lava was approaching. He preaches a long sermon, and the lava got stopped and did not overtake the church. It actually turns out the lava came into a large enough river that it was able to freeze it up and create a dam.

And then after the event, as these poisonous gases were killing everyone– it killed his wife. He was burying five to 10 people a day. And he stuck with it. He kept them organized. He got them out to try and find food. He went and petitioned the Danish government for help with financial support. And that’s where he held his community together. And it’s sort of astonishing– Iceland lost almost a quarter of its population, and yet came back from it.

It could have been just like in Greenland, the Scandinavian settlers could have given up and left, or been driven out. But they pulled it back. And it was people like Pastor Jon that really made the difference.

IRA FLATOW: But you also write there are examples where disasters really brought out the worst in people, like persecution of marginalized groups, like the Mississippi floods of ’27.

DR. LUCY JONES: That was one of the hardest things to try and write, especially when I was writing it, was just as the Black Lives Matter thing was coming up. And to go back and look at how– you know, when they needed to shore up the levees, they just went through the African-American parts of town with guns and forced the African-American men up onto the levees to try and shore them up. Kept them there at gunpoint as the levees were failing, and hundreds were washed away to their deaths.

And then in the camps afterwards, the white overseers were afraid that their African-American tenants would– if they were evacuated from the area because of the huge flood, that they wouldn’t come back. So they wouldn’t let them be taken out. There was even an incident where people were stranded up on a levee top surrounded by flood waters. The boats came, and they only let white families get on the boats. And they left the black families sitting there with no water, no sewers, no fresh food.

I mean, it’s just really quite horrific. It’s not the only case. I mean, we saw some of this in Japan, where they turned on Korean neighbors. And I ended up saying, you know, we’ve got to remember that the worst threat from a natural disaster could be the threat to our humanity.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a good point to make. There was a lot of government bungling after Katrina in terms of disorganization between the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Is that a unique situation, or could that happen elsewhere after a disaster?

DR. LUCY JONES: Failure at that level does require failure at every part of government. So it’s definitely at the more extreme cases of it. And it’s more symptomatic of seeing how– engineers like to say that systems fail where they’re already weak. So it’s the crack in the levee where the crevasse forms. Or you know, the inherently bad building that falls down in the earthquake.

But it’s true of human systems as well. And so when our system is corrupted by racism, it’s going to make the response to the disaster much uglier. And in New Orleans, it was clear that there was corruption, and there was huge animosity between the state and the city. And one fire chief who was sent there in the aftermath told me that when he arrived– he was called in by the state of Louisiana from California to come help them. He arrived in New Orleans, and Mayor Nagin had no idea he was coming, this whole team from California, because they so weren’t talking to each other.

So that type of problem makes it much worse.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’m talking with Lucy Jones, author of the new book, The Big Ones. And she’s also a seismologist at Caltech. On Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

I know that when you moved from government service– and you were there a while– you founded The Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. Give me an idea– what’s the idea behind that institute?

DR. LUCY JONES: OK. It’s to try and address what I see is a big gap in the science enterprise. We have our research institutions that do a great job of supporting research. But you know, I was in the US Geological Survey, a federal employee for 33 years. And we have to do what Congress authorizes us to do. And Congress authorizes us to do research.

And then on the other side, you’ve got these people who want to use the information, but aren’t going to take a research journal and understand what that is. And there’s this whole place in between that you could call science translation, that’s really not supported in our current system. And that’s what I’m trying to do is to help policymakers better understand what the science can tell them, especially about resilience issues.

But then also to help try and help scientists become better communicators. Because there’s just such– there’s like cultural differences in how we talk about our science. And while we’re researching it, it’s all about finding the flaws in your colleague’s research, the whole peer review process. We are trained to attack each other. And once it’s settled, and you’ve gone through that attack mode, which is actually really important to understanding whether something is true, and it’s now settled, now your researchers are no longer interested in it. Because it’s settled.

But now is when the policymakers should really be picking it up. And yet we don’t fund or honor that place in between of providing the translation. So that’s what I’m trying to do is create a space for it, show the value of it, and hopefully start to really encourage others.

IRA FLATOW: Do you tell scientists to speak out when they find that there is a real danger of what their research shows? Instead of saying, that’s not my job. My job is just to do the research.

DR. LUCY JONES: Well, that’s what I’m hoping to do. I’m just now starting to develop some training programs for scientists. And it’s not just that it’s not our job. I would argue that it’s actually– it’s not my job to make policy. It is my job to make sure a policymaker understands the implications of his decisions. And it’s that part that we’re really missing. And it’s easy for the scientists and engineers once you say, all right, let’s look at the consequences. And you see what’s so obvious. You want to jump in and say, this is what you should do. And that’s sort of jumping over that need of the real policymaker to understand why you’re saying that.

IRA FLATOW: But sometimes you have the policymakers asking scientists for advice. And they say, I’m not in the advice business. And I’ve had scientists tell me, you know, when global warming started happening, they were afraid to speak out and say what was really on their mind because they might cause panic or something like that.

DR. LUCY JONES: Well, that’s right. Yeah, that’s not my job. It should be obvious, right? And there’s sort of this ideal of purity in the science process. And I think we’ve drawn the line in the wrong place. Instead of saying, here’s the journal article. You figure out what it means. We need to fill in that space that goes from that to, here’s what the policy implication is. You get to decide what you want to do, but if you make this choice A, the consequence is going to be these towns being flooded.

IRA FLATOW: Exactly. Right. Right. Lucy Jones. Thank you, Dr. Jones. Very informative. It’s a great book. You’re a wonderful writer. It’s good to see scientists becoming wonderful writers, too. Lucy Jones is author of The Big Ones, and a seismologist at Caltech. Thanks again. We have an excerpt up on our website at sciencefriday.com/thebigones. That’s sciencefriday.com/thebigones.

One last thing before we go. Science Friday is hitting the road for Pennsylvania next month, taking the stage at Pittsburgh Carnegie Library Music Hall, Saturday, May 19th. We have roboticists, an artificial intelligence designer, musical robots, musical humans, too. Pittsburgh’s own Townsppl. Some more info and tickets at sciencefriday.com/pittsburgh. That’s sciencefriday.com/pittsburgh.

Here in Cincinnati we’re very happy to have technical help from Rich Kim, Sarah Fishman, and Jack Horowitz back in New York. And here, Bill Dean, Don Danco, Kevin Reynolds, Rick Andress, and all the folks at Cincinnati Public Radio who have helped make our visit here so comfortable and so successful. Have a great weekend. Have a productive Earth Day this weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in Cincinnati.

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