Kate Hutton: 'That Earthquake Lady'

By Richard Tate

Originally published on Advocate.com January 17 2014 4:30 AM ET

 

From the March 13, 2001 issue of The Advocate:

When the earth moves — as it did to devastating effect in the January 26 quake in northwestern India — many people turn to Kate Hutton, a.k.a. "that earthquake lady," for answers.

An easygoing woman with short silver hair and clear blue eyes, Hutton, 50, has been a staff seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for more than 20 years. When she's not explaining complicated scientific information to TV viewers, Hutton lives quietly not far from campus with her four border collies, Rue, Boudicca, Xena, and Doc.

"It's sort of like being a soccer mom," says Hutton, an avid dog trainer. "We compete in sheepdog trials, and we put a fair number of miles on the pickup finding sheep to practice with."

In casual conversation, Hutton is attentive but reserved. But ask her about her dogs or Southern California shakers, and her eyes light up as she offers clear, detailed responses. Her knack for explaining things is one of the reasons she's become a popular source for expert opinion in news coverage of earthquakes.

But earthquakes haven't always been her specialty. As a teenager, Hutton was an amateur astronomer and eventually went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Maryland. It wasn't until after she completed her formal education that Hutton chose earthquake science, or seismology, as a profession.

"After I got my Ph.D., it was clear to me that the job market was abysmal in astronomy, and seismology was another interest of mine," Hutton says. So in 1977 she packed up her car, sold her telescope, and headed to Pasadena to take a position in data analysis at the seismology lab at Cal Tech.

"[It's] not as big of a switch as you might think," she says. "Both [astronomy and seismology] are observational sciences that depend on analysis of waves — remote sensing, if you will. Earth is a planet, after all, so it's sort of a matter of looking down rather than looking up."

Now Hutton spends most of her time locating earthquakes and assigning magnitudes. Daily life on the job is surprisingly quiet, as she attends meetings, writes reports, and occasionally guides tours for groups and individuals curious to see what goes on in one of the world's most famous seismological research laboratories. But when an earthquake rocks Southern California, Hutton really goes to work.

The recent earthquake in India occurred well outside the region where her work is focused, but TV and print media outlets were nevertheless immediately in touch with Hutton and the team at Cal Tech for information.

"It was bigger than both the Northridge and San Fernando quakes," says Hutton, comparing the Indian earthquake to recent Southern California quakes she has studied. The India earthquake had a magnitude of 7.9 while the 1994 Northridge earthquake measured 6.7.

"Probably the 1906 San Francisco quake or the Kern County [Calif.] quake in 1952 are better comparisons," she says. "The 1906 quake did a lot of damage, but Kern County was not that heavily populated, so it was not a huge disaster. A further difference is that India has a much higher population density and probably a less stringent and less well-enforced building code."

It's this kind of authoritative knowledge that has earned Hutton the nickname "that earthquake lady." In fact, ever since the Northridge quake rocked the Los Angeles area, Hutton has been a local celebrity. She's been stopped on the street for autographs, and she's become familiar with the "Don't I know you from somewhere?" stares that TV personalities endure.

"Six months or so after Northridge, I was browsing with a friend in Crate & Barrel," Hutton says, "and a woman came up to me and said, `I'm so happy to see that you are replacing your glassware. It must now be safe for me to do the same.' I've also had people take a lot of interest in how much water and canned food is in my grocery cart."

Hutton is also a bit of a lesbian icon, appearing on numerous lists of famous out individuals posted on the Web. Hutton has been out since 1984, when she gave a tour of the seismology lab to members of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists and soon began dating the woman who scheduled the visit. She immediately made the choice to be out professionally as well.

"Right from the beginning I had myself pegged as a poor liar," she says. "I knew I'd get caught sooner or later, so I decided to be out from the start. My attitude is that it shouldn't matter, and I am very matter-of-fact about the subject."

So matter-of-fact that Hutton didn't pass up the opportunity to have a little fun at a 1994 ceremony at which she was being honored by the Girl Scouts of America. "I used to give talks and lab tours to the Girl Scouts," she says. "One year I got an award from them for my role model status. The ceremony was a black-tie affair, and I was going to decline because I didn't have anything to wear and didn't really have any interest in acquiring any of that sort of clothing. The public relations office at Cal Tech suggested that I rent a tux. I did. I had a bright cummerbund, and I wore dangly earrings with it, and I had a very interesting experience. I was pleasantly surprised to find that no one opened any doors for me or offered to carry my 20-pound glass award. The only downside of it was that I have never heard from the Girl Scouts again!"

Still, Hutton says that being out at work has not been problematic. "I actually don't think my orientation has caused me anything more than a few minor inconveniences," she says.

She's thought about moving on from her work at Cal Tech, perhaps to do seismological research in Hawaii, near the islands' active volcanoes. But for now she's happy where she is. Hutton is busy working with the TriNet project to modernize seismology in Southern California and has recently begun teaching a night course on earthquakes at a local community college. That means that when the next big one hits, "that earthquake lady" will most likely be back in front of the cameras to answer our questions.

Tate, a freelance writer in Los Angeles, is a former editor for Radiospy.com.