Persuading the public to pony up for infrastructure can stump the best politicians. It can also frustrate the engineers and scientists warning about the dangers of ignoring crumbling roads, bridges and water systems.
Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, knows the feeling. But when she and 300 other academics, businesspeople and government officials published a 2008 study called “The Shakeout Scenario,” she discovered that “stories matter.”
“Scientists don’t believe we should do stories,” Jones told colleagues in a recent speech. “The reality is that is how people communicate, and when we reject the stories, we are rejecting a lot of the ways that we can connect to other people.”
“The Shakeout Scenario” still inspires yearly earthquake drills. The authors used scientific and economic data to create a plausible story about Los Angeles after a hypothetical 7.8 quake on the San Andreas Fault. It starts 10 minutes before the quake and ends six months later. Buildings collapse, others burn. Water and power fail. Businesses shutter. Jones said the scenario was helpful in persuading civic leaders to make seismic resiliency a priority.
“The Shakeout was an attempt to bridge the gap between scientific analysis and the human need for stories,” the seismologist says.
U.S. Geological Survey/film by Theo Alexopoulos
Jones notes that historically, San Francisco has been particularly active on earthquake issues. “Part of it is because they have a civic memory of catastrophe,” she says, referring to the 1906 earthquake that nearly burned the city to the ground.
In contrast, Los Angeles' “earthquake story” is the Northridge quake in 1994, which was smaller. Jones says that story “is of resilience and recovery and 'look how great we did.' So it’s harder to believe you have to make the difficult investments.”
Jones says city leaders want to make those investments. Late last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan to tackle the city’s earthquake vulnerabilities. Now it’s a matter of funding the recommended changes.
Jones, meanwhile, has her own “earthquake story.” It takes place in 1957 in Ventura, California. She says it’s her very first memory. “I’m home with my mom and siblings, and I remember my mother getting us into the hallway and crouching over and protecting us and my Siamese cat screaming.”
A screaming Siamese cat. Now the scientist has our attention.