TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
Temblor Spawned Network That Today Measures, Maps, Tracks.
By TJ Sullivan
Ventura County Star
The Northridge earthquake of 1994 did not compute.
When Los Angeles and Ventura counties shook with a force so intense it collapsed bridges and walls, the seismic sensors buried in various locations throughout the area immediately sent radio alert signals to a computer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, only to be ignored.
The computer put the data aside, reading it only as noise and choosing not to alert anyone. That left geologists, emergency workers and others in the dark for 45 minutes, unable to determine even the most basic data — the magnitude and the location of the epicenter where the shaking began.
There was damage in Santa Monica. Freeways collapsed in the San Fernando Valley. Fillmore's downtown was buried in bricks. But in that first predawn hour after the earthquake, few people, if any at all, were aware of what was happening a mile away, let alone in the next town.
The situation quickly became one of the most important lessons learned from Northridge and prompted the funding and development of a system that now enables scientists and emergency workers to obtain within five minutes detailed reports of where the shaking was worst, information they say is critical to saving lives.
"Nothing succeeds like failure in the federal government," said Lucile M. Jones, scientist-in-charge for Southern California with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. "The fact that we blew it with Northridge, that got us some money to try to fix it."
The U.S. Geological Survey put up $4 million in the effort to improve upon the Southern California Seismic Network. An additional $12 million came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Private contributors matched the FEMA money 3 to 1.
The state Office of Emergency Services has since joined the effort.
The result was TriNet, a partnership among the USGS, the California Institute of Technology and the California Geological Survey. Aimed at doing more than just fixing what went wrong, TriNet set out to develop a system that would indicate within minutes of an earthquake where the worst shaking occurred and how the ground moved.
"The epicenter is not going to tell you very much," Jones said. "Even the epicenter and magnitude doesn't get you very much. Which direction does it go from the epicenter?"
Earthquake energy moves in waves, and not with the uniform predictability of ripples on water. It starts at a point, the epicenter, and emanates from there. Depending upon variables such as soil conditions, shaking can be more intense in some areas, and less in others.
The insignificance of the epicenter and magnitude to emergency workers is apparent when considered in the context of the biggest earthquake scientists believe is possible in Southern California -- a magnitude 8 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.
A magnitude 8 would be more than 100 times more powerful than the Northridge earthquake and occur on a fault of about 300 miles in length — the distance from Ventura County to Las Vegas. The fault that caused the Northridge earthquake, the most costly earthquake in U.S. history, was about 9 miles long.
Comprising hundreds of computers located between the Mexican border and San Luis Obispo, the California Integrated Seismic Network is connected through a variety of methods, including microwaves and telephone lines. Utility companies have partnered in the effort, allowing use of some of their communications systems, because they need the information, too.
"We've built in redundancy," Jones said. "Even if the phone company, for instance, were to go down, maybe we'll get some of our data from these other sources."
A deep problem
At the time of Northridge, seismologists depended on FM radio technology to transfer information from the sensors in the field. But all those sensors sometimes picked up noise, which could mimic an earthquake signal. So scientists built in computer filters that said "if the ground starts moving at the exact same time in a bunch of different locations, that's probably noise," Jones said.
That works fine if the intention is to track shallow earthquakes; but Northridge's shaking began more than 10 miles below the surface.
"If it's shallow, it gets to the nearest station quite a few seconds before it gets to a more distant one," Jones said. But because the Northridge earthquake was so far below the surface, the shaking moved upward and hit the surface in a large area at about the same time, prompting what looked like noise to the computer.
Scientists tried immediately to recapture the information, but because the computer was so busy recording aftershocks, it responded with the equivalent of a busy signal.
"It was such an old, slow computer that we couldn't talk to it to get out the information about the main shock because the aftershocks were coming in too quickly," Jones said.
About 45 minutes later, they had the epicenter and magnitude, but it took hours to get anything more meaningful.
If it were to happen again, the computers would not be fooled. Instead, fire stations should know where it happened and what areas shook the hardest within five minutes, Jones said. It's information that took two months to put together after Northridge.
After the San Simeon earthquake last month, it took just 45 seconds to measure and map the location of the temblor. In less than five minutes, a shake map was up on the Internet.
In addition, the new network has helped in developing maps that indicate where shaking is likely to occur in future earthquakes, some of the worst of which is predicted for Ventura County's Santa Clara River Valley.
It's a much more sophisticated system than what is often presented after an earthquake, such as the tiny metal arm shaking a pen frantically across a drum of paper. That equipment was outdated more than 12 years ago, Jones said.
"We haven't used a piece of paper on a seismogram since 1992," she said. "We do still … run the output from the computer back to those old drums in the media center because the TV guys got so upset when we removed them."
Now the system is all digital.
But despite all the progress, the future of the program is still on shaky ground. Budget cuts claimed six positions last year from the USGS in Pasadena, and more are anticipated this year, Jones said.
When will it strike?
Despite all the efforts to measure and track earthquakes when they occur, many want to know about the possibilities of prediction. Scientists have so far been unable to identify vibrations or other signals that provide proof positive that an earthquake is coming.
"Within a thousand years, there is no question," Jones said, referring to the probability of a massive earthquake in California. "We can give you a really good description of a risk on a 100,000-year time scale. A 10-year time scale is a crapshoot."
Even determining probability based upon past earthquakes is difficult. "We don't have data. We've been here for 200 years," Jones said.
There was an effort in the 1970s and '80s to pursue the earthquake equivalent of a weather front, an approaching storm of shaking, but everything they found, every noise they heard, was always explained as being something else.
"That big move in the '70s and '80s was just sort of 'go out there and measure everything we can think of and see if we can see something,' " Jones said. "And there was some bad science done. It actually reached a point that it lost a lot of credibility because of that bad science."
Still, some pursue it, and frequently send their findings to the USGS.
One of these is a woman who traces the paths of slugs in her yard.
She "gets up every morning and makes diagrams showing the slug tracks across her sidewalk and decides that earthquakes are going to happen in places that look like the outlines formed by the slug trails," Jones said.
Another earthquake watcher tracks pulses of energy he's found going around the Earth. Of the 50 or 60 predictions he's made, none has come true.
"So there are these people that do this," Jones said, "and that tends to make reputable scientists wary of getting in there."
Some people say they wouldn't want to know, even if science were able to predict.
"Imagine the tension and the stress that would create in you," said Linda Brewster, who was mayor of Fillmore when the Northridge earthquake destroyed its downtown. "Does everybody get on the freeway now and try to go to Oregon in three days?"
Still others say they'd want the information, a chance to prepare or to flee.
Jones says all can rest assured that if scientists ever figure it out, they'll broadcast it to the world.
"I guess people can count on my ambition, because if I ever successfully predicted an earthquake … publicly, I could have any job I wanted," she said. "You've got to count on the ambition of the seismologist. There's no way we're covering it up."
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