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Major Earthquake Scenario Tests California’s Response Capabilities

The Golden Guardian exercise helps California agencies practice emergency response and recovery after a simulated earthquake hits the San Francisco Bay Area.

by Sarah Rich / May 16, 2013
Paul Williams

SAN FRANCISCO — No one can be certain when a natural disaster will strike, so to better prepare for such events, the city of San Francisco, outside agencies and organizations, and volunteers participated in the annual Golden Guardian statewide exercise on Wednesday, May 15. This year's functional exercise focused on carrying out policies, response and recovery after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the San Andreas Fault near San Francisco. The city focused on what would be required in its response for up to 48 hours after the earthquake hit.

During the exercise, San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management practiced its response inside the EOC and worked with other agencies including FEMA, the U.S. Navy and the city’s Human Services Agency. The agencies worked together and practiced communicating about how they would help coordinate the city’s recovery to the earthquake scenario. Offsite from the EOC, shelter and feeding exercises were performed to get a better understanding of the response required when an emergency leaves nearly 1.2 million people stranded in the city.

Some of the major challenges San Francisco would face during a disaster are transporting the resources needed during the recovery period like water and fuel, and finding ways to shelter the homeless. Like many metropolitan cities, San Francisco has a large homeless population, which must be factored into emergency preparedness, said Francis Zamora, the public information officer for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Another top priority following a disaster would be providing food and shelter to people who don't live in the area. While San Francisco’s general population is around 800,000 people, officials must take into account that on a typical weekday, nearly 100,000 tourists and 300,000 commuters are in the city, according to Zamora.

The exercise scenario outlined that all forms of public transportation would be shut down in light of the emergency and its effects, including air travel, ferries, public buses and the Bay Area Rapid Transit train system. All main bridges connecting into the city, including the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, were considered shut down during the exercise, and damage on some of the major highways leading out of the city experienced severe damage.

But preparing for the worst means being allowed to make mistakes during the exercise, Zamora said. Because Wednesday’s event was not a real disaster, the practice run allowed for some trial and error. “People shouldn’t be afraid to fail when they’re here,” Zamora said.

Inside the EOC, technology helped streamline communication during the exercise. San Francisco uses the WebEOC incident management tool for situational awareness and to help keep everyone on the same page.

Spanning beyond technology, individuals of the various agencies represented at the exercise relied on face-to-face communication to help each other follow protocol. Carla Johnson, the access compliance officer and emergency planner for the Mayor’s Office on Disability, attended the exercise to ensure that members of the access and functional needs community were properly attended to during the exercise — a population that makes up 20 percent of San Francisco’s residents.

Johnson said one of the challenges of helping this community during a disaster is getting individuals the proper resources they need. For example, if an individual who is deaf goes to one of the shelters provided by the city after an earthquake, he or she may need a sign language interpreter present to help with communication.

San Francisco Provides Food and Shelter

To better prepare for the possibility of housing displaced residents after a disaster, the city, in partnership with the American Red Cross, set up an emergency shelter exercise at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church near the EOC. Inside the church, rows of cots were set up and volunteers acted as displaced residents.

The full exercise consisted of registration, feeding, health and mental health support, children’s services and dormitory management.

During the final leg of the exercise, the agencies and city worked with the Tenderloin Hunger Taskforce to hold the first-ever feeding event, called Disaster Feed SF. The Tenderloin neighborhood in downtown San Francisco is home to many no to low-income residents. This third portion of the exercise relied on nonprofits like Meals on Wheels and the San Francisco and Marin, Calif., food banks to provide 6,000 free meals to the public. At the event, hot dogs, chili, bean salad, sliced fruit and water were served to residents as a way to practice feeding large groups of people.

To conclude the exercise, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee made an appearance at the feeding exercise to provide a hypothetical press briefing on the series of events, where he discussed the importance of preparing for disasters and emphasized the need for the exercise.

“It’s always practice, practice, practice,” Lee said.

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