Federal Player of the Week

Lucy Jones, an internationally known seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is leading groundbreaking research on earthquakes and turning it into public action that will save lives and property.

Through countless interviews, public lectures and local government meetings, Jones has communicated her science in ways that have made it possible for communities, states and the federal government to take preventive measures to shore up critical infrastructure and be better prepared to respond to a major earthquake.

“Her objective is not just to deliver science, but to explain to decision-makers and policymakers how they can better handle natural disasters and, in particular, earthquakes,” said Rob Graves, a USGS seismologist. “She is not doing science for the sake of science, but actually getting the information into broader use where it will benefit society.”

Jones has done pioneering research on estimating the short-term probability of foreshock and aftershock sequences, which have become the basis of all earthquake advisories issued by the state of California.

With this and other scientific information on earthquakes in hand, Jones has built partnerships with engineers, social scientists, biologists, geographers, public health doctors, emergency managers, public utilities and public officials to develop comprehensive depictions of the probable consequences of catastrophic natural disasters.

These detailed disaster simulations delineate the devastating effects on California of a potential southern San Andreas Fault earthquake; a statewide winter storm; and an Alaska tsunami. Governments and the private sector have used them to understand the hazards and take action to reduce risk.

“She developed a simulation that takes an earthquake that is likely to occur in the future and would have significant consequences, and predicts everything from the ground moving and the likely damages to buildings to the emergency response needs and repercussions on rapid transit, water systems and telecommunications,”’ said William Leith, USGS senior science adviser for earthquake hazards.

In Los Angeles, where Jones was on detail to Mayor Eric Garcetti as the science adviser for seismic safety, Jones brought together city officials and leaders in academia, industry and business to address the earthquake risk and develop an action plan based on her analysis of the earthquake hazards and vulnerabilities.

Based on her work, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is replacing the tunnel that brings water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct across the San Andreas Fault. Southern California Edison spent $20 million to evaluate the impact on its systems of the earthquake scenario Jones devised, and to develop priorities for improvements. The city is now putting policies in place for retrofitting older buildings that are highly susceptible to damage from a strong earthquake.

Garcetti praised Jones for her leadership and said her “Resilience by Design” report is being translated into laws that will make residents of the city safer. “It’s designed so that public officials, property owners and tenants can come together to strengthen Los Angeles against a known and major threat to life, property and our economy,” Garcetti said.

Jones’s simulations have led to an educational campaign that has spread across the country. Started in 2008 in Southern California — based on the magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault described in a “ShakeOut Scenario” — a ShakeOut drill has grown to become the largest public safety drill in the world, with more than 26.5 million participants in 2014.

In the 2008 drill in California, there were events at schools, medical facilities, government offices, museums, corporate facilities, private homes and other locations, with mock victims, emergency responders, evacuations and other activities to simulate the real event.

Such drills now are held in 20 regions nationwide, helping to change the culture of preparedness. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Office of Emergency Services use Jones’s simulations as a basis for planning to handle an earthquake in Southern California.

“I don’t know how you put a dollar figure on it, but her work has helped mitigate substantial risks facing Americans in earthquake-prone areas, particularly in Southern California and has helped decision-makers make better policies and take better precautions to respond to natural disasters and especially earthquakes,” said Suzette Kimball, USGS acting director.

Jones joined the USGS in 1983. The roots of her interest in public service can be found in her own family life. Her grandparents were missionaries in China, and her father, an engineer, was part of the team that built the Apollo 13 lunar module.

Jones said she believes a lack of clear communication of the risk of natural disasters leads to a lack of preparation and can result in catastrophe. While scientists like Jones are not in the business of making policy, she said, she feels a strong obligation to “make information from our science understandable by non-scientists so that it can be used to support others in making our region safer in the inevitable natural disasters.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.