What Did the Quake Lady Say?

Imagine:  you live in Southern California.  (Congratulations to you and your publicist.)

This lovely spring afternoon is interrupted by … oh no!  An earthquake!  What do you do?

Turn on the TV.  That’s all.  Find Lucy Jones. She’ll know, and she will tell you.

While I was growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, I knew Lucile Jones only as the Quake Lady:  a fine-featured, bespectacled woman who knew more about earthquakes than any other person in the world.  The Quake Lady looks like the kind of woman who recycles paper bags and aluminum cans, who‘s nice to animals and pays all her bills on time.  She seems easy to trust.

From the beginning, we all trusted her – as evidenced by the glare of TV-camera lights that herald her every sentence.  Every station wanted the Quake Lady’s remarks.  Every TV station still carries them, probably because of hordes of viewers like me.

This was what a typical quake-day discussion sounded like, in my neighborhood (we always stayed half-in, half-out of the house in those first post-quake hours, all doors wide open, just in case another one hit):

PERSON OUTSIDE HOUSE:  What does Quake Lady say about it?

PERSON INSIDE HOUSE:  She’s not on yet.

PERSON OUTSIDE HOUSE:  You sure?  Tried channel 4 yet?

PERSON INSIDE HOUSE:  Checking … Oh.  Here she is.

PERSON OUTSIDE HOUSE now joins PERSON INSIDE HOUSE in front of the TV, to hear the Quake Lady say her piece.

Lucile Jones is Southern California’s family doctor for earthquakes.  She feels out our faults and translates their activity for the godforsaken desert-to-the-sea sprawl of the place, all the way from San Diego to Santa Barbara.  Everybody has a barber or hairstylist, a dry cleaner, a kid’s teacher, a minister or priest, a dentist.  All of these specialists are different for everyone in all those bastard ZIP codes.

But for quakes, everybody goes to the same person.  They go to the Quake Lady.

There is something about Lucy Jones that’s different from all other professionals, a quality that sets her apart as the true go-to person for earthquakes.  It’s not that she’s unflappable (which she is; she doesn’t mind the cameras any more than she minds the earthquakes); it’s not that she is direct and clear, though she is, of course.

It’s that smile.

Lucy Jones has always made her post-quake comments through a hint of a smile.  It’s a Mona Lisa smile, reflective and knowing.  When she’s said something particularly scary – which she has a tendency to do – that smile becomes spooky as well.

And the scary things she’s said were really scary.  They’d make you feel things you didn’t normally feel outside of a movie theater, watching something like Jaws or Jurassic Park.  Want to hear my favorite Quake Lady comment, from after the Whittier Narrows quake?  Check it out:

“Of course there could be aftershocks.  [Pause.]  “But this might also just have been a foreshock to a much larger quake.”

You’re standing in front of your TV, leg muscles still twitching, and you hear that.  What can you do?  What the hell can you do?

You laugh.  After all, the Quake Lady looks like she might laugh, too.  Any second.

The gifts Lucile Jones – California’s Quake Lady – has offered this state are too numerous to count.  First and most important, she has taught residents of a self-obsessed corner of the world what humility in the face of indifferent nature looks like.

Humility like hers looks the same, every day:  no matter the time or the conditions, whether the speaker is alone or holding her sleeping child, she is still addressing the giant matter of plate tectonics.  It’s a critical topic when you live here, whether you want to believe that or not.  Lucy Jones wants even those of us who would prefer to ignore the fact of our geology to better understand it.

She has done, and continues to do, so much to lead.  Starting with that smile.

See Lucile Jones’ work here:

Public earthquake safety information

Remember the Great California Shakeout?  It couldn’t have happened without Lucy Jones.

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2 responses to “What Did the Quake Lady Say?

  1. You know, I heard from a geology guy I follow on Twitter yesterday. He said that when he tells people he’s in seismology, they often ask if he’s met the Quake Lady.

    So she’s big, and not just in the slip-strike zones.

  2. As a fellow San Gabriel Valley refugee, I remember how the media thronged to the CalTech guys (they were the nerdy science guys we gravitated to after a quake, to ID the exact Richter scale count)… but I did not know the story of Lucy Jones. 🙂

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