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Waverly Person Biography

Worked Hard To Achieve Success, Achieved Respect As Center Director, Frequently Sought For Expert Commentary



Person, Waverly, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos Reproduced by permission.

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 quakes—as 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 people—even if they're in the middle of the situation, like in California—the 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.

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