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Person, Waverly

Waverly Person

1927

Geophysicist

As director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado, Waverly Person is often one of the first experts called upon for information and advice when natural disasters strike. A veteran seismologist and geophysicist, Person has worked in the field of earthquake studies for half a century and is the first African American to hold such a prominent position in the U.S. Department of the Interior. "I'm probably the first African American ever to be an earthquake scientist," he noted in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ). "I came from the bottom and went up to the top."

As chief of the NEIC, Person is responsible for locating earthquakes, computing their magnitudes, and disseminating this information quickly and efficiently to emergency crews, government officials, and news media throughout the world. Satellites and a host of sophisticated measuring devices record the quakesas many as 50 a day worldwide. Though it is estimated that millions of earthquakes occur throughout the world each year, the NEIC staff annually tracks approximately 20,000 events. Since the early 1970s, the NEIC has located and reported on more than a quarter million earthquakes.

It is up to Person and his staff to interpret the information and disperse it to the public. As official spokesperson for the NEIC, media briefings and interviews constitute a large part of his job. "Once you give peopleeven if they're in the middle of the situation, like in Californiathe facts in a way that they can understand, it calms them down much more than if you're talking over their heads," he told CBB. In 1988 his success in accomplishing this earned him a prestigious award from the National Association of Government Communicators. And in 2004, when the second most devastating tsunami in history ravaged the countries in the Indian Ocean, Person was on hand to offer advice and to help plan safeguards that would improve detection of future killer waves.

Worked Hard to Achieve Success

Having overcome considerable obstacles in the drive to become a geophysicist, Person sees himself as an important role model for minority students. He devotes much of his free time to visiting schools throughout the state of Colorado and encouraging black youngsters to consider careers in the earth sciences. "I try to show them that this is the kind of thing they can do if they want to do it," he commented in his CBB interview. "I tell them that the barriers are not there now the way they were, and that if they prepare themselves, they can make it." Person is editor of "Seismological Notes," a regular feature in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, and he writes for the USGS's Earthquake Information Bulletin, "Earthquakes." Person also contributes significantly to professional journals, and his articles and picture appear in countless science textbooks.

Waverly Person was born in 1927 in Blackridge, Virginia. After completing high school, he enrolled at St. Paul's College in his hometown of Lawrenceville. Hoping to become a high school math and science teacher, he concentrated his academic work in the areas of general science and industrial education. He received his bachelor of science degree from St. Paul's in 1949, then spent the next several years serving in Korea with the U.S. Army.

Unsure of which career path to followfunds were not available for further educationhe moved to Washington, DC, to help a relative run a construction company. A series of odd jobs followed. Then, in the summer of 1962, he was offered a job as a technician with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which then operated the NEIC. "I was changing the record in the drums for recording earthquakes [and] became very nosey about why we were getting these wiggly lines on these recordings," he recalled in Emerge. "So I decided that I wanted to know more about this field."

During his college years, Person told CBB, the idea of a career in earthquake studies had never occurred to him. "There were no African Americans in the fieldno one for you to look up to," he said. But once he had had a taste of geophysics, there was no turning back. As a technician, his career prospects were limited, so he decided to return to school to study the subject on an advanced level.

Person spent the next 11 years working as a technician in the department of earthquake services during the day and studying geology, geophysics, and differential equations at American and George Washington universities at night. Over the years, his supervisors assigned him a variety of projects, and he always "came up with flying colors," he told CBB. By 1973 Person had qualified as a geophysicist and was transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey's NEIC in Colorado. Four years later he was named director of the center.

At a Glance...

Born Waverly J. Person on May 1, 1927, in Blackridge, VA; son of Santee (a farmer) and Bessie (Butts) Person; married Sarah Walker, 1956. Education : St. Paul's College, Lawrenceville, VA, BS, 1949; completed graduate work in geophysics at American University and George Washington University, ?-1973. Military Service : U.S. Army, served in Korea, 1949-52.

Career : Earthquake Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, technician, 1962-73; National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), U.S. Geological Survey, Golden, CO, geophysicist, 1973-77; National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), director, 1977.

Memberships : American Geophysical Union; Seismological Society of America; Colorado School of Mines (honorary member, 1991); Boulder County Crimestoppers; Flatirons Kiwanis Club.

Awards : Honorary doctorate in science, St. Paul's College, 1988; Outstanding Government Communicator Award, National Association of Government Communicators, 1988; Meritorious Service Award, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1989; Annual Minority Award, Community Services Department, Boulder, CO, 1990; Outstanding Performance Rating, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994.

Addresses : Home 5489 Seneca Place, Boulder, CO 80303. Office National Earthquake Information Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Box 25046, DFC, MS-967, Denver, CO 80225.

Achieved Respect as Center Director

Person's climb was not an easy one, however. Along the way he encountered anger and skepticism from many sides. "Any time you're breaking ground, you've got to take a lot, do a lot," he explained in his CBB interview. "People were always asking, 'Why do you want to get into this field?' They wondered how I would do as their colleagueon the same level as they were. Anything I did that was professional or scientific, I was always expected to do better, or more. But I was one who never gave up. No matter what anyone would say, I had my goals set as to what I was going to do. Nothing was going to stop me." Today Person supervises a staff of 26. "Once you get to respectability, people don't see your color anymore," he added. "They see you as an individual who knows what you're doing, and they accept you for that."

Although the systems Person used when he first started working as a geophysicist would require days of measurement to predict an earthquake, advancements in technology now offer up-to-the-minute record keeping. Seismographs, computers, and other sophisticated instruments at the NEIC make it possible for Person and his staff to monitor earthquake activity all over the world, 24-hours a day. In the United States, even a tiny, insignificant quake can be detected, and a significant onemeasuring at least 4.0 on the Richter scaleis enough to trigger an alarm system in the hall. If an earthquake occurs overseas, it must register at least 6.0 in order to be detected. No matter how sensitive the system, however, earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted, so the center relies on what it calls the Earthquake Early Alerting Service to help communities cope with the chaos and confusion that follow a significant tremor.

"The name of the game here is to try to get the earthquake located, compute the magnitude and give that location to the emergency people so that they can get into the area and start to rescue people and save lives," Person explained in Emerge. Thanks to a special hot line at the NEIC office, he and his staff are in direct communication with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs. "We tell them what state we want to go to and they hook us up with the state emergency people immediately," he elaborated in Ebony. "The state officials then get in touch with the fire departments, hospitals, etc."

If a destructive quake occurs in a foreign country, the NEIC forwards the information they have collected directly to the United Nations, as well as to the American embassy or consulate in that country. Person carries a special paging device for emergenciesit displays the location, time, and magnitude of major quakesand two staff members maintain a 24-hour vigil at the center.

As soon as emergency personnel have been alerted and informed, Person turns to the media for assistance. "The media is our ally," he told CBB. "They get the information out to the public. What we try to do is inform the public as much as we possibly can about earthquakesnot only in the United States, but in the world. Our society today moves, and we have a lot of Americans everywhere."

Frequently Sought for Expert Commentary

When an earthquake occurs, however, it is often the media that get to Person first. He was not even out of bed on the morning of January 17, 1994, for example, when the ABC television news program Good Morning America called to ask his opinion about the deadly quake that had just shaken the San Fernando Valley in California. "I went straight for about seven hours after I got to work giving interviews to the media on where the earthquake was, what did I think about damage, how aftershocks might come and this kind of thing," he related in Emerge.

Person continued: "And then the rest of the night, it was live TV interviews, locally and nationally. Then I got home, got a couple of hours of sleep and was able to change clothes. I got back the next morning at 5:00 because I was going to be on [NBC's] Today show. So it was pretty hectic. That's what happens when you have a large earthquake in the United States." Although Person has witnessed many more devastating tremors, the January, 1994, earthquake in Northridge, California, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, was "one of the most talked about, most interviewed quakes I've ever been on in my entire career," he told CBB."I talked to everybody. You name them, I talked to them." When a 6.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed a survey reporting station in Washington state in 2001, Person told the Rocky Mountain News that "The phones here lit up like fireworks and lightning."

Person's nearly fifty years of experience as the bearer of bad news all came to call in 2004 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia caused a huge tsunami that killed more than 275,000 people in the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean, ravaging huge portions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka. The huge number of deaths prompted calls for better emergency warning systems to be put in place in the Indian Ocean.

In addition to giving interviews to U.S. newspaper, magazine, TV, and radio correspondents, when a major earthquake occurs, Person speaks to media representatives from around the world. He and his staff also field phone calls from panic-stricken citizens, anxious to know what to do and what to expect in the wake of a significant tremor. Even the mild quake that shook parts of the Midwest and Canada in June of 1987 was enough to tie up the NEIC's phone lines for three solid hours. "I had eight people here doing nothing but answering phones," Person recounted in Ebony. "We knew that the quake was not large enough to have killed thousands of people. But as far as those people in that area are concerned, they are being shaken by an earthquake and they want to know if they're going to have another."

Encouraged Minority Students to Study Earth Sciences

Although he still makes forays into the field to inspect earthquake damage, record aftershocks, and consult with emergency officials, most of Person's time is devoted to managerial work. This includes training and supervising staff, organizing the NEIC's budget, and producing hundreds of publications on earthquake activity worldwide. The center issues daily, weekly, and monthly reports on earthquakes, as well as pamphlets advising the public on what to do when a significant tremor occurs. "We have a database [at the World Data Center for Seismology] that's second to none," Person told CBB. "Builders and civil engineers want to know what kind of earthquake activity there's been in an area before they start to build dams, big buildings, and so forth." All of the publications produced by the office are available to the general public.

Discouraged by the desperate shortage of minorities in the field of geophysics and seismology, Person spends much of his time visiting middle schools and speaking with minority students about the challenges and rewards of a career in the earth sciences. In 1993 he traveled as far afield as Baltimore, Maryland, where nearly 400 students gathered to hear a presentation he gave at Dunbar Middle School. "I try to get them to understand that the easiest thing in school is not always the thing you want to do," he told CBB, "and that math and science are good no matter what field they go into. I try to stress the importance of being competitive in anything they go to do."

After several decades in the field, Waverly Person remained as fascinated by earthquake studies as he ever was. "No two earthquakes are alike," he pointed out in Emerge. "It's never a dull moment because earthquakes are occurring all over the world and we are working to find out where all the different seismic zones are. It's something that you just love to do because you continue to learn." Even on his golden anniversary of government service in 2005 Person related his love for his job, telling the Denver Post that "Well, I enjoy what I do, so it hasn't been a burden... but 50 years?" For all his years as the spokesperson for the world's worst disasters, Person had become something of a celebrityboth in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where he is active in community affairs, and around the globe. "Everywhere I go, people know me," he told CBB. "They keep looking at me, and then they come up close and say, 'Are you the earthquake man?'"

Sources

Periodicals

Boys' Life, September 1997, p. 50.

Denver Post, January 14, 2005, p. B5.

Ebony, September 1987, pp. 134-38.

Emerge, April 1994, pp. 9-10.

Rocky Mountain News, March 1, 2001.

Seattle Times, February 11, 2005, p. A10.

On-line

"Experts Say Tsunami Warning System Would Have Saved Lives," Voice of America, www.voanews.com/English/2004-12-28-voz5.cfm (April 29, 2005).

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a feature story on Person aired on KCNC-TV, Denver, CO, February 16 and 23, 1994, and from an interview with Person on October 20, 1994.

Caroline B. D. Smith and Sara Pendergast

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Person, Waverly 1927–

Waverly Person 1927

Geophysicist

At a Glance

Satisfied Curiosity About Earthquakes

Director of Earthquake Early Alerting Service

Close Ties With the Media

Encouraged Minorities to Consider Geophysics

Sources

When a major earthquake rocked the Los Angeles area in January of 1994, killing 61 people and leaving more than 3,000 homeless, one of the first experts called upon for information and advice was Waverly Person, director of the U.S. Geological Surveys National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado. A veteran seismologist and geophysicist, Person has worked in the field of earthquake studies for more than 30 years and is the first African American to hold such a prominent position in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Im probably the first African American ever to be an earthquake scientist, he noted in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). I came from the bottom and went up to the top.

As chief of the NEIC, Person is responsible for locating earthquakes, computing their magnitudes, and disseminating this information quickly and efficiently to emergency crews, government officials, and news media throughout the world. Satellites and a host of sophisticated measuring devices record the quakesas many as 50 a day worldwidebut it is up to Person and his staff to interpret the information and disperse it to the public. Media briefings and interviews constitute a large part of his job. Once you give peopleeven if theyre in the middle of the situation, like in Californiathe facts in a way that they can understand, it calms them down much more than if youre talking over their heads, he told CBB. In 1988 his success in accomplishing this earned him a prestigious award from the National Association of Government Communicators.

Having overcome considerable obstacles in the drive to become a geophysicist, Person sees himself as an important role model for minority students. He devotes much of his free time to visiting schools throughout the state of Colorado and encouraging black youngsters to consider careers in the earth sciences. I try to show them that this is the kind of thing they can do if they want to do it, he commented in his CBB interview. I tell them that the barriers are not there now the way they were, and that if they prepare themselves, they can make it. Person also contributes significantly to professional journals, and his articles and picture appear in countless science textbooks.

Waverly Person was born in 1927 in Blackridge, Virginia. After completing high school, he enrolled at St. Pauls College in his hometown of Lawrenceville. Hoping to become a high school math and science teacher, he concentrated his academic

At a Glance

Born Waverly J. Person, May 1,1927, in Blackridge, VA; son of Santee (a farmer) and Bessie (Butts) Person; married Sarah Walker, 1956. Education: St. Pauls College, B.S., 1949; completed graduate work in geophysics at American and George Washington universities.

Technician, Earthquake Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1962-73; National Earthquake information Center (NEIC), U.S. Geological Survey, Golden, CO, geophysicist, 1973-77, director, 1977. Military service: U.S. Army, served in Korea.

Member: American Geophysical Union; Seismological Society of America; Colorado School of Mines (honorary member, 1991); Boulder County Crimestoppers; Flatirons Kiwanis Club.

Awards: Honorary doctorate in science, St. Pauls College, 1988; Outstanding Government Communicator, National Association of Government Communicators, 1988; Meritorious Service Award, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1989; Annual Minority Award, Community Services Department, Boulder, CO, 1990; Outstanding Performance Rating, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1990, 1991,1992,1993, and 1994.

Addresses: Home 5489 Seneca Place, Boulder, CO 80303. Office National Earthquake Information Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Box 25046, DFC, MS-967, Denver, CO 80225.

work in the areas of general science and industrial education. He received his bachelor of science degree from St. Pauls in 1949, then spent the next several years serving in Korea with the U.S. Army.

Unsure of which career path to followfunds were not available for further educationhe moved to Washington, DC, to help a relative run a construction company. A series of odd jobs followed. Then, in the summer of 1962, he was offered a job as a technician with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which then operated the NEIC. I was changing the record in the drums for recording earthquakes [and] became very nosey about why we were getting these wiggly lines on these recordings, he recalled in Emerge. So I decided that I wanted to know more about this field.

Satisfied Curiosity About Earthquakes

During his college years, Person told CBB, the idea of a career in earthquake studies had never occurred to him. There were no African Americans in the fieldno one for you to look up to, he said. But once he had had a taste of geophysics, there was no turning back. As a technician, his career prospects were limited, so he decided to return to school to study the subject on an advanced level.

Person spent the next 11 years working as a technician in the department of earthquake services during the day and studying geology, geophysics, and differential equations at American and George Washington universities at night. Over the years, his supervisors assigned him a variety of projects, and he always came up with flying colors, he told CBB. By 1973 Person had qualified as a geophysicist and was transferred to the U.S. Geological Surveys NEIC in Colorado. Four years later he was named director of the center.

Persons climb was not an easy one, however. Along the way he encountered anger and skepticism from many sides. Any time youre breaking ground, youve got to take a lot, do a lot, he explained in his CBB interview. People were always asking, Why do you want to get into this field? They wondered how I would do as their colleagueon the same level as they were. Anything I did that was professional or scientific, I was always expected to do better, or more. But I was one who never gave up. No matter what anyone would say, I had my goals set as to what I was going to do. Nothing was going to stop me. Today Person supervises a staff of 26. Once you get to respectability, people dont see your color anymore, he added. They see you as an individual who knows what youre doing, and they accept you for that.

Director of Earthquake Early Alerting Service

Seismographs, computers, and other sophisticated instruments at the NEIC make it possible for Person and his staff to monitor earthquake activity all over the world. In the United States, even a tiny, insignificant quake can be detected, and a significant onemeasuring at least 4.0 on the Richter scaleis enough to trigger an alarm system in the hall. If an earthquake occurs overseas, it must register at least 6.0 in order to be detected. No matter how sensitive the system, however, earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted, so the center relies on what it calls the Earthquake Early Alerting Service to help communities cope with the chaos and confusion that follow a significant tremor.

The name of the game here is to try to get the earthquake located, compute the magnitude and give that location to the emergency people so that they can get into the area and start to rescue people and save lives, Person explained in Emerge. Thanks to a special hot line at the NEIC office, he and his staff are in direct communication with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs. We tell them what state we want to go to and they hook us up with the state emergency people immediately, he elaborated in Ebony. The state officials then get in touch with the fire departments, hospitals, etc.

If a destructive quake occurs in a foreign country, the NEIC forwards the information they have collected directly to the United Nations, as well as to the American embassy or consulate in that country. Person carries a special paging device for emergenciesit displays the location, time, and magnitude of major quakesand two staff members maintain a 24-hour vigil at the center.

Close Ties With the Media

As soon as emergency personnel have been alerted and informed, Person turns to the media for assistance. The media is our ally, he told CBB. They get the information out to the public. What we try to do is inform the public as much as we possibly can about earthquakesnot only in the United States, but in the world. Our society today moves, and we have a lot of Americans everywhere.

When an earthquake occurs, however, it is often the media that get to Person first. He was not even out of bed on the morning of January 17,1994, for example, when the ABC television news program Good Morning America called to ask his opinion about the deadly quake that had just shaken the San Fernando Valley in California. I went straight for about seven hours after I got to work giving interviews to the media on where the earthquake was, what did I think about damage, how aftershocks might come and this kind of thing, he related in Emerge.

Person continued: And then the rest of the night, it was live TV interviews, locally and nationally. Then I got home, got a couple of hours of sleep and was able to change clothes. I got back the next morning at 5:00 because I was going to be on [NBCs] Today show. So it was pretty hectic. Thats what happens when you have a large earthquake in the United States. Although Person has witnessed many more devastating tremors, the January, 1994, earthquake in Northridge, California, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, was one of the most talked about, most interviewed quakes Ive ever been on in my entire career, he told CBB. I talked to everybody. You name them, I talked to them.

In addition to giving interviews to U.S. newspaper, magazine, TV, and radio correspondents, when a major earthquake occurs, Person speaks to media representatives from around the world. He and his staff also field phone calls from panic-stricken citizens, anxious to know what to do and what to expect in the wake of a significant tremor. Even the mild quake that shook parts of the Midwest and Canada in June of 1987 was enough to tie up the NEICs phone lines for three solid hours. I had eight people here doing nothing but answering phones, Person recounted in Ebony. We knew that the quake was not large enough to have killed thousands of people. But as far as those people in that area are concerned, they are being shaken by an earthquake and they want to know if theyre going to have another.

Although he still makes forays into the field to inspect earthquake damage, record aftershocks, and consult with emergency officials, most of Persons time is devoted to managerial work. This includes training and supervising staff, organizing the NEICs budget, and producing hundreds of publications on earthquake activity worldwide. The center issues daily, weekly, and monthly reports on earthquakes, as well as pamphlets advising the public on what to do when a significant tremor occurs. We have a database [at the World Data Center for Seismology] thats second to none, Person told CBB. Builders and civil engineers want to know what kind of earthquake activity theres been in an area before they start to build dams, big buildings, and so forth. All of the publications produced by the office are available to the general public.

Encouraged Minorities to Consider Geophysics

Discouraged by the desperate shortage of minorities in the field of geophysics and seismology, Person spends much of his time visiting middle schools and speaking with minority students about the challenges and rewards of a career in the earth sciences. In 1993 he traveled as far afield as Baltimore, Maryland, where nearly 400 students gathered to hear a presentation he gave at Dunbar Middle School. I try to get them to understand that the easiest thing in school is not always the thing you want to do, he told CBB, and that math and science are good no matter what field they go into. I try to stress the importance of being competitive in anything they go to do.

After more than three decades in the field, Waverly Person is as fascinated by earthquake studies as he ever was. No two earthquakes are alike, he pointed out in Emerge. Its never a dull moment because earthquakes are occurring all over the world and we are working to find out where all the different seismic zones are. Its something that you just love to do because you continue to learn. By the mid-1990s, Person had become something of a celebrity both in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where he is active in community affairs, and around the globe. Everywhere I go, people know me, he told CBB. They keep looking at me, and then they come up close and say, Are you the earthquake man?

Sources

Ebony, September 1987, pp. 134-38.

Emerge, April 1994, pp. 9-10.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a feature story on Person aired on KCNC-TV, Denver, CO, February 16 and 23, 1994, and from an interview with Person on October 20, 1994.

Caroline B. D. Smith

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Person, Waverly 1927–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Person, Waverly 1927–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/person-waverly-1927

"Person, Waverly 1927–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/person-waverly-1927