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Earthquake expert: We can’t predict or warn you about the ‘Big One’

Lawmakers are asking for more federal funding to allow USGS to finish building an earthquake warning system. (File, Associated Press)

The Northwest has been on guard for the “Big One.” After the shake, Dr. Lucy Jones says that while many buildings will remain standing, they’ll still have to be demolished.

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“Instead of just ‘crawl out alive,’ make a building that you can reuse,” Jones told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “Engineers know how to do it. We haven’t been willing to spend the money. Turns out the extra money is about 1 percent of construction costs.”

Jones is the seismologist behind the original Great Shakeout drill that multiple states now participate in — about 53 million people participated in 2017. Her latest book “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us” is her attempt to help others overcome the fear they may have about the demise of cities during the earthquake.

“I came to the conclusion that our fear of randomness, just how distressing it is that we don’t know when this is going to happen disempowers us,” she said. “I wrote this book to empower people to see that there are other ways of handling this. We can build a city that will survive the event and build communities where people come together to help each other.”

Predicting the Big One

Jones says that people should be aware that predicting the Big One isn’t going to happen.

“Prediction, I believe, is impossible … you don’t want me to predict every earthquake,” Jones said. “You want me to predict which of the thousands we record every day are going to turn out to be big enough to do some damage. That means the way a big and a small earthquake begin are going to have to be different. And as far as we can tell, they start the same way. We have no way of predicting at this point. If you hear about a prediction, it’s not coming from a scientist.”

“We can tell you that the earthquake has begun before the waves get to you,” she said. “The Cascadia subduction zone has the potential to give you large amounts of warning because the fault is so long … the problem is that the warning is going to be that an earthquake going on in the subduction zone, it may or may not make it all the way up to Seattle. If it makes it all the way to Seattle, you are going to have this strong shaking at this time. The challenge is how to communicate that information in a way that doesn’t get a lot of false alarms, how to make it understandable. And scientists aren’t always the best communicators.”

Preparing for the Big One

Part of building up communities is taking care of buildings and homes.

RELATED: History won’t let us forget we are due for a major quake

For homeowners, Jones points out:

“Single-family, wood-framed homes are one of the safest buildings around, they are very flexible,” she said. “But there are some basic things like you need to be properly bolted to your foundation. If you have a crawl space or a basement, the walls of that can’t be just 2x4s, because they will topple over like dominoes … whenever I have purchased a home, the first thing I have done is to bring a foundation specialist to come in and look at the building and tell us if there was something we can do to make it stronger. Three out of the four houses I have bought in my life, I did have things I could do and I never spent more than $1,500 on the process. And it maybe made the difference between significant damage or total loss of the building, and getting through it just fine.”

Dr. Jones will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, April 24 at 7 p.m.

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