'San Andreas': Are Earthquake Swarms For Real?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

The new disaster movie, "San Andreas," starts with a bang - a 7.1 earthquake at the Hoover Dam. When the deadly tremors move down a fault line to Los Angeles, a Caltech seismologist played by Paul Giamatti goes on national television to warn the country about what will happen next.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAN ANDREAS")

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Lawrence) What we're experiencing is what we call a swarm event. Basically, California's entire tectonic plate has shifted. People need to know that the shaking is not over.

BATES: Next, a record-breaking trembler hits San Francisco. I talked with Lucy Jones, one of the world's leading seismologists, about whether a swarm like this could really happen.

LUCILE JONES: Actually, we don't use the term swarm. Swarm is for when they're all in the same location. But this idea of a triggered earthquake, that an earthquake in Nevada could set off an earthquake in Los Angeles, we've seen that. In 1992, a 7.3 in Southern California set off a 5.7 in Nevada. The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco set off a magnitude six near the Mexican border, so that distant trigger is actually a core part of the earthquake process.

BATES: You know, when the movie opens, we have a Caltech seismologist who's working with a team of people on a project that monitors quakes along a series of fault lines in California. And, in essence, they're trying to predict quakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAN ANDREAS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The magnetic pulse rate has increased before each one of them.

GIAMATTI: (As Lawrence) That was a 2.2. Our model's predictive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Right, man, finally.

GIAMATTI: (As Lawrence) Yep, we sure did.

BATES: So, are you guys actually working on something like this? Are you - is this the holy grail for seismologists?

JONES: If you had played this to me when I started my career 30 years ago, I would've went, yeah, that's what we're trying for. But everything we looked at, none of it worked. So now we can recognize that an earthquake's begun so quickly that we get the information to you before the shaking gets to you. That doesn't give you a lot of warning. Unfortunately, what they're doing in the movie has really been shown to not work.

BATES: That's really too bad (laughter). With the first big quake in the movie, a TV journalist played by Archie Panjabi darts into a doorway, darts underneath a doorway - the lintel. And she's quickly corrected by the Caltech guy. Here's what he tells her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAN ANDREAS")

GIAMATTI: (As Lawrence) No, no, no, no, no, no - under the table. Drop, cover and hold on.

BATES: That in-the-doorway mythology has been floating around for a really long time. Why is the doorway a bad idea, and did he give her the right advice?

JONES: He gave her the right advice. The doorways began actually from a Red Cross volunteer in the 1952 earthquake that saw a collapsed adobe house with the lintel still standing and said, wow, that - the door must be a good place to be, and they started teaching that. And it's true if you're in a 200-year-old adobe house. In any modern construction, the doorway is no stronger than anywhere else, and it usually has a door. So what you're trying to do in an earthquake is you're trying to protect yourself from flying objects. That's why going under a table is a good idea. We used to just say duck and cover. Now we say drop, cover, hold on, because in strong shaking, the table may be trying to go somewhere else.

BATES: The casualties and the fatalities in this movie are just staggering. When - and I'm saying when and not if because I've listened to you guys - the big one hits California, is this movie exaggerating the loss of life? How likely are we to die in an earthquake?

JONES: You're far more likely to die on the freeway than in an earthquake if you live in California. We think of earthquakes as a threat to our lives. The reality is they're a very serious threat to our pocketbooks. What they showed in Los Angeles was most buildings standing, but badly damaged, and that may indeed be the reality. This is actually why I've been working with the mayor's office in the city of Los Angeles, to look at how we can strengthen our older buildings, because we can't take that financial hit of having our buildings unusable.

BATES: A lot of us may well be in our cars when the big one happens, and I'm wondering, what's in your trunk to get you through an earthquake?

JONES: (Laughter) That's a very important thing, because as most Californians, you don't know where you're going to be when the earthquake hits, but you know you're going to have your car with you. So, as a woman, number one is running shoes because sometimes the shoes I'm in are not one I want to have to walk home in. I've tried to keep some water supplies, basic first aid. I've got a little Mylar blanket stuck in there, a crank flashlight because, you know, batteries go bad, so having one of these ones were you can use a little crank to get the electricity going is a very positive thing.

BATES: One of the heroines in the film, a young Blake, has a plan for reuniting with her family. Should we be doing the same thing in the event of an earthquake or any other kind of big catastrophe?

JONES: Oh, absolutely. I really thought that was one of the best messages out of the movie. The family not only had a family plan, they moved to plan B. A core message of the movie is the fear you feel when you don't know if your family's OK. And it's the emotions that, as usual, Hollywood got better than the facts.

BATES: I think a lot people in the audience - I saw it here in Los Angeles - were looking kind of going, ooh, man. And I'm wondering if a lot of people in other places like New York or Dallas or D.C. might be looking at it as purely entertainment. Should they be thinking about earthquake preparedness too?

JONES: Earthquakes happen around the country, and everywhere has some disaster. And that basic preparation of some supplies and, most of all, a communication plan, will make all of us better. It's not as bad as the movie shows, but it's bad enough that you better have some plans.

BATES: So, we've corrected some of the science here, but I'm wondering what you thought of this just as a viewer, or was it more of a Busman's Holiday for you?

JONES: I actually first saw it with a group of seismologists, and we were all sort of ready to go, oh, really? I mean, because we could tell from the trailers some of it wasn't an accurate. We all enjoyed it. You know, don't consider this a seismology course. Consider this a summer blockbuster movie.

BATES: Dr. Lucy Jones is a fourth-generation Californian, which means she's been through some shaking, and one of the world's leading seismologists. She's headquartered at the U.S. Geological Survey at Caltech in Pasadena and spoke to us from member station KPCC. Thanks, Dr. Jones.

JONES: Thanks for having me.

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