NPR Story
2:44 am
Mon November 19, 2012

California Examines Disaster Plans

Originally published on Tue November 20, 2012 8:38 am

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Emergency managers around the nation have been paying close attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. From California, NPR's Richard Gonzales a look at what lessons disaster planners there say they've learned.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Superstorm Sandy didn't sneak up on anybody.

CHRISTOPHER GODLEY: They had days of warning before it made landfall, before the damage really started to occur, so people could prepare themselves, their families, their neighborhoods.

GONZALES: Christopher Godley directs Emergency Services for the City of San Jose. He says he won't get a heads-up about a likely disaster in his community.

GODLEY: Whereas in the Bay Area, the earthquake is going to come with no notice. We will not have any ability to harden ourselves, if you would, against what's coming.

In the event of a catastrophe, California emergency planners typically have told residents to be prepared to survive on their own, with no power, for at least 72 hours. But officials we talked to say that's old-school thinking. Just look how long Sandy knocked the power down back east.

ROB DUDGEON: Think about the physics of an earthquake. You know, the ground moves, anything that's buried is subject to breaking.

GONZALES: Rob Dudgeon is deputy chief of operations for San Francisco Emergency Services. In a major quake, he says he expects not only power to be out, but also water and sewage lines to be down for a long time.

DUDGEON: They'll bring in all the mutual aid you can possibly get from utility companies, but you're literally talking about digging up streets to repair things. And that just takes time. There's just no way around it.

GONZALES: Dudgeon was one of eight California state, city and county-level emergency managers deployed to help the recovery from Superstorm Sandy. He says he came back thinking about the basic logistical problems of hosting mutual aid officials from other parts of the country.

DUDGEON: OK, if I'm going to bring in several thousand workers to help us on all facets, whether its search and rescue all the way up to operations center management, how do we do that? How do we move them around?

GONZALES: Car rentals were in short supply in some parts of New York. Gasoline was even more rare, causing long lines of panic buyers. And some gas stations that had gas didn't have the power to pump it. Here's New York Governor Andrew Cuomo summing up his frustration.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: That's one of the lessons. Power outage, you paralyze the nation and chaos ensues. Literally chaos, the anxiety goes up, chaos ensues, and now you have a real problem on your hands.

GONZALES: And California is likely to see a replay of that scenario, says San Jose's Christopher Godley. The gas supply in Northern California and parts of Nevada depends on a handful of refineries that are vulnerable to seismic damage or power disruption.

GODLEY: And there's every chance that we might lose those in a major earthquake for days at a time. And as much as we would like to think that we can ship fuel up from Southern California, we just don't have the capacity to replace everything these refineries produce. So in many ways our gas lines will dwarf what we're seeing at Hurricane Sandy.

GONZALES: As for that chaos that Governor Cuomo talked about, well, officials in California were listening. They're also concerned about the possibility of civil unrest. On the positive side, California disaster planners say they have a very robust communications system with officials who have years of experience responding to fires and earthquakes. Yet they are also realistic, or as one emergency manager said, I'm paid to be paranoid.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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