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CLIQUES : Wavewatchers

October 30, 1994|Michael R. Forrest

Earthquakes aren't predictable, but local TV's earthquake coverage sure is. Whenever a fault twitches enough to rattle plates, tectonic or otherwise, local newscasters go after seismologists Lucy Jones and Kate Hutton, of the USGS and Caltech, respectively, who tell us about epicenters and aftershocks and seismological waves. The reporters, with most of Southern California, hang on every word.

Jones and Hutton have become seismostars. But much of what we know about earthquakes comes from work done by seismogrunts.

Southern California has more than 10,000 earthquakes a year, most no more disruptive than a stomach rumble, each a clue to quake probabilities, each dutifully logged by seven former and current geoscience majors in Caltech's seismological lab.

Known as the Timers, they sit in a neat row in front of their computer monitors, mice in hand, munching munchies, Walkman headphones shredding their eardrums, watching hour after tedious hour of seismogram squiggles. They're on the lookout for seismological waves that indicate how far away and how strong a quake is. When they spot them, they log their arrival time in the computer, which comes up with precise calculations of distance and magnitude. Wave watching is a chore best done by humans, says Hutton, because it's hard for a computer to discern a real quake signature from background noise and other "ghosts."

Sounds like a nice, quiet job for nice, quiet people.

Take Robby Robb, 28. "To get through eight hours of this," she says, "I listen to really violent music, like punk and stuff, just to keep myself amped up. Nine Inch Nails, Dead Kennedys, that kind of stuff." She keeps a picture of Francisco Goya beside her screen, "glaring at me, to keep me concentrating."

And Eric Riggs, 26, relies on Led Zeppelin, Sonic youth, Sound Garden, Big Black and Metallica--and has "celebratory visions, to be bluntly honest," about L.A. coming down in a quake. "I came here from Minnesota, so I actually enjoy earthquakes. I'm one of those few people who actually kind of like surfing around bedrooms." Then, clearly remembering that he's speaking for publication, he adds that "watching out for flying glass and making sure your kids are covered is always more important."

The other Timers--Robb, Riggs, Debbie Wells, 24, Nick Scheckel, 26, Paul Roberts, 45, Helen Quan, 27, and Riley Geary ("just call me an Old Timer")--have similar tricks to get them through boring shifts, and each bursts with stories about exciting ones--shifts when they log more than earth burps.

But Geary, a 10-year veteran, has the best: His saga began the day before the Northridge quake, when took a long bike ride that included a bloody crash and ended at 2 a.m. "I got all of about two hours of sleep when Northridge hit," he says. Riley rode into work and "plopped myself down on one of these chairs here, still oozing blood. I ended up staying here 27 hours. At the end of the day, I stuck to the chair."

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