As Los Angeles stares down a rare summer tropical storm, Los Angeles Public Press phoned one of the country’s foremost experts on disaster resilience: Dr. Lucy Jones. 

We caught Dr. Jones on Friday afternoon just after she had reviewed information on the approaching Hurricane Hilary. She graciously spent a few minutes walking us through some of the issues she believes are important to consider about this particular storm, as well as the longer term effects of climate change that increase the probability of more summer storms in Los Angeles. 

Dr. Jones is a seismologist and scientific communicator who, after a career with the United States Geological Survey, founded the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society to help people apply science to the creation of more resilient communities. She’s also the author of The Big Ones, a book which documents the social components of disaster preparedness.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity: 

MT: A hurricane is not something that we have really planned for. What should the public be thinking about right now?

LJ: Okay, I was myself just reading through the storm predictions. The tropical force winds are [going to be] in limited areas. For most of us, it’s going to be a rain event, which is something we should be prepared for. We’re just really surprised to get it in the summer. 

But we have to take it seriously. I think one of the problems is: “who is afraid of the rain?” 

We normalize it in a way we don’t normalize earthquakes, and therefore we tend to underestimate the risks that it poses to us. Flash flooding is really going to be a potential issue. We could have several inches of rain in one hour. If you get in that sort of pocket, lots of things can be washed away. Don’t panic, but don’t think you can do absolutely whatever you want. There’s a real risk of severe rainfall.

MT: This is presumably not the last time a tropical event will affect Los Angeles and Southern California. 

LJ: You can’t attribute any one event to climate change, but the shifts that have happened because of climate change make these types of events more common. 

MT: What do we need to be thinking about in terms of our long term disaster resilience? Is it different from earthquakes?

LJ: It depends. In terms of the basics of disaster response planning: Do you have supplies? Are you equipped to handle a power outage? All of those sorts of things are common to all disasters. 

Very specifically about flooding; historically, California has had huge problems from floods. The flood of 1862 caused way more damage than an earthquake ever has. We manage floods through our flood control systems. 

But we need to expect one of the climate shifts that’s going to be happening, as extreme events become more common, is that it’s more likely an event will exceed the capacity of our current flood control.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly different from it being a hurricane versus an atmospheric river. They both bring extreme events, and they both bring extreme wind potentially, it’s just a different time of year and a different fundamental mechanism.  

MT: So, our flood control infrastructure, generally, is in need of an upgrade?

LJ: It was partly the hurricane of 1939 that led to our current flood control system, as well as that previous winter had been an extreme rain event.

So sort of like what we have now; we had a really extreme winter, and now we’re having a hurricane. So far our flood control systems are handling it. But we just need to remember that with any flood control system, sort of by definition, there’s always the potential for a storm bigger than it can handle. As extreme events become more common, we’re more likely to exceed them. 

In the 1930s, having had all this rain, and the fact that people had died in the various floods, there was a lot of public support for putting in flood control. 

Now, go look at some of the more recent developments. You’ll see that the amount of flood control that’s provided for those communities is a lot less than it used to be for the same level of development. We don’t have the public support for flood control that we did after lots of people died.