When the Big One Comes: the Woman Preparing LA for Life After a Major Quake

January 20, 2016
Marissa Aho recently became Los Angeles’ chief resilience officer. In a city prone to earthquakes, reliant on imported water and suffering a housing shortage, how could the city survive and recover after a catastrophe?

On the list of existential threats to Los Angeles, earthquakes rank highest. With dozens of fault lines running beneath and around the metropolitan area, the ever-looming threat of the Big One is a not-so-quiet concern in the back of most people’s heads. The last major earthquake to hit the region was the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake in 1994, which killed 57 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Many predict that an even stronger earthquake is increasingly likely to strike by mid-century.

But LA isn’t just idly waiting for the catastrophe. For the past year, Mayor Eric Garcetti has been working with the US Geological Survey’s southern California earthquake expert Dr Lucy Jones to develop an quake resiliency strategy for the city. In October, the city enacted the showpiece of that effort, a set of aggressive seismic regulations that will require retrofits on more than 15,000 buildings across the city.

A few weeks later, Garcetti and Jones were in a high school science classroom, flanked by students and other city officials, to unveil ShakeAlert, an early warning system that can send out notifications when nearby earthquakes are sending shockwaves toward the city. Jones, who led the system’s development, demonstrated how an earthquake about 150 miles from the city would trigger sensors in the region, giving people in LA about 60 seconds of notice before the damaging shock waves hit. As he introduced the system, Garcetti referred to Jones as “the Meryl Streep of government service”. Another official called her “the Beyoncé of earthquakes”.

In the back corner of the classroom, behind all the TV news cameras, school employees and mayoral aides, stood Marissa Aho. Though not instantly recognisable like the mayor, nor nerd-famous like Jones, Aho in many ways was the most important person in the room. Her new role as LA’s first chief resilience officer puts her in charge of making sure the city can not only heed those early earthquake warnings but also survive and recover in their aftermath. ...