FEMA PrepTalks Event Stresses Individual Disaster Planning

Preparing to react to the next flood, wildfire or earthquake, and sharing plans with residents are the vital steps local government officials must take in disaster-prone areas like Northern California.

by Will Schmitt, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / April 24, 2019
Firefighter Brian Carter of Weed, Calif., keeps an eye on the flames along the North Fork of the Feather River on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. TNS

(TNS) — Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore paused his pacing and let the words on the screen above him in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts bring home his message about emergency preparedness and disaster response.

“WAKE UP,” said the top line of Gore’s slide, followed by “WAKE UP OTHERS” and “STAY WOKE.”

Preparing to react to the next flood, wildfire or earthquake — and sharing plans with residents — are the vital steps local government officials must take in disaster-prone areas like Northern California, Gore told dozens of emergency officials Tuesday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Santa Rosa PrepTalks event.

Otherwise, “you will find yourselves in a world of hurt later,” Gore said.

He was among the first county officials in the aftermath of the 2017 fires to admit that the county’s emergency warning system had failed to alert many of those in the inferno’s path. Authorities should have done better to prepare themselves and the public for a countywide disaster, he said.

On Tuesday, Gore was one of several presenters at the PrepTalks symposium, which focused not only on how local governments could prepare to withstand and respond to natural disasters but on the importance of neighbors talking to each other to ensure a higher chance of survival — particularly in a flood-, fire- and quake-prone state. Previous editions of the FEMA-sponsored lectures have focused on response to the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, keeping students safe from active shooters and preparing for a major disease pandemic.

“They’re like TED Talks for emergency managers,” said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s own emergency manager, adding that he hoped to take home new techniques for engaging with local residents.

“In Sonoma County, this is really where we’re at: to build a culture of preparedness,” he said.

Tuesday’s morning session included a presentation on how San Francisco officials are turning to block parties as tools to plan for emergencies at the most local of levels and a discussion of a Southern California radio station’s series on what would happen if Los Angeles were slammed by a catastrophic temblor.

Daniel Homsey, director of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network, recalled how his aunt died during a heat wave after none of her neighbors checked on her. That loss fuels his work putting together dozens of block parties each year to increase social cohesion and disaster readiness. He said he credits his father’s strong bond with his neighbors for saving his life during a more recent blast of hot weather.

Anecdotes like that are prized by journalists who cover natural disasters, public safety and emergency preparedness, said KPCC science reporter Jacob Margolis, who with executive producer Arwen Nicks and producer Misha Euceph created a podcast called “The Big One: A Survival Guide” that examines how more than 10 million people would be affected if a big earthquake shook Southern California. Their show has been downloaded more than 1 million times and has generated responses from listeners who felt inspired to plan for such a disaster after hearing a broadcast.

Margolis encouraged emergency managers to be comfortable sharing their own perspectives with the public and with journalists, as their personal histories can supplement nuts-and-bolts information and make for more effective communications.

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©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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