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How Prepared Is The U.S. For Earthquakes?


Seconds before the earthquake got to Mexico City on Tuesday, people there heard this.


MCEVERS: Mexico has had an earthquake early warning system for decades. Other countries that get earthquakes - Japan, Taiwan - have them, too. The U.S. does not. Lucy Jones is a seismologist who spent many years with the U.S. Geological Survey working on such a system for this country, and she's with us now. Welcome to the program.

LUCY JONES: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So first, just explain - what is Mexico's warning system? And how does it work?

JONES: OK. It's based on the fact that the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound. If we have earthquake sensors near where an earthquake begins, we can determine that it's begun and send that information electronically, i.e. the speed of light, to people and get it there before the strongest shaking arrives at people.

MCEVERS: And so on Tuesday, did this warning system help?

JONES: Well, the warning system definitely worked. I have not yet - I mean, it's sort of a little too fast to know how much good it did...


JONES: ...If you will. One of the challenges of these systems is the education around it and how do you help people understand what's the best way to use the information?

MCEVERS: And I understand that Mexico actually had just done its annual earthquake drill just before this earthquake. How was that a help?

JONES: Well, I think that actually made a big difference. When the alarm went off again there were people like, oh, is this another drill? And then they realized that the ground was starting to move. And they said that - you know, so everyone went outside. And this time there wasn't any confusion about stay away from the power lines and various things that had been worked out in the morning drill. So there's one case I know where people did a better job because they had just been practicing it. And I think, you know, it's got to be helping.

MCEVERS: As I mentioned in the introduction, you spent many years working on a warning system for this country. Why don't we have one yet? And what would it take to get one?

JONES: We have a prototype system. The reason it's not yet public is, quite bluntly, the funding hasn't been in place. And if one wants to be cynical, it's because we have not yet killed at least 2,000 people in an earthquake, which is what led to the development of these systems in other - every other country that has an operating one. But more directly, we have a prototype. To turn it into a robust public system, we need several things. There's a lot of maintenance and telemetry expense and software and support that needs to be in place, and the current budget uncertainties from Washington are affecting our ability to move forward on this.

MCEVERS: Aside from the warning system, how do you feel about preparedness? I mean, we're both in California, right? A big one's going to come. Everybody knows it's going to happen at some point. How prepared are we?

JONES: I think we're not nearly as prepared as we could be, but we are much better than we used to be. There's a lot of energy and excitement. City of Los Angeles has undertaken major improvements, passed five ordinances in city council unanimously, including mandatory retrofit of the dangerous buildings. And it's starting to spread to other Southern California cities as well. And there are several dozen other cities that are reaching out to get help in moving forward with ordinances themselves. These things happen, we're going to be a lot better off in our next earthquake.

MCEVERS: Should an early warning system be part of that?

JONES: An early warning system absolutely should be part of it. For whatever physically it does, it's also a huge psychological benefit that helps people cope with the earthquakes and keeps them in afterwards, which is going to be important for recovery.

MCEVERS: Dr. Lucy Jones, thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Dr. Lucy Jones is chief scientist at the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN JONES' "A SNAPSHOT OF MOM, SCOTLAND, 1957") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.