San Diego County, CA (October 26, 2007) – If you find yourself trapped somewhere during a major disaster – pray that you’re in California, because when it comes to disaster response and mitigation, no one does it better than emergency personnel in the Golden State.
It’s no secret that California is a hotbed for disasters. The potential for major emergencies like wildfires, earthquakes, floods and mudslides is high, perhaps higher than any other state in the nation. But other states experience serious natural disasters as well, and with the exception of Florida few are able to ride the wave without wiping out.
Some of my colleagues say that California was just lucky this time around. I say no way, because when the Santa Anas blow hard and the vegetation is tinder dry, it’s like joining in on a crap game in which no one’s brought the dice. There is no luck.
The response to the 2007 Firestorm wasn’t a knee-slap reaction but rather the implementation of a long-established plan that has long been administered by Cal OES. It’s a dynamic plan, one that is updated as each disaster is critiqued and recommendations made.
The current working plan was ordered by the Governor back in the Spring. Signed on May 9, 2007, Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-07-07 essentially instructed agencies like the OES, Cal Fire, the CDC and the National Guard to beef up their response capabilities. According to the order, additional OES strike teams were to be created, Cal Fire staffing was to be increased, better coordination between state agencies and the military was mandated, and a reciprocal firefighting arrangement was to be established with Mexico
Schwarzenegger launched each press conference by crediting the state’s firefighters, always making note of the dangerous conditions under which they were working. While agency directors tended to hour-to-hour operations, much of the Governor's focus this past week was on the plight of the evacuees, saying he didn’t want anyone to feel abandoned. He personally toured evacuation centers like Qualcom, where he conducted his own assessments, some of which dealt with the nitty-gritty.
So, without any ceremony, the title of Master of Disaster was quietly handed over this week from former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The California governor’s handling of the 2007 Firestorm, and the state’s largest evacuation ever has brought him praise from around the World. Even ultra-liberals offered admiring remarks.
“How about Schwarzenegger…he was certainly in control this week,” said HBO’s Bill Maher on his Friday night broadcast. “It’s a shame that he can’t run for president,’ Maher added, “…he’d probably have my vote!”
During a satellite feed beamed to the participants of the conference that he was unable to attend, Schwarzenegger offered this explanation of the importance of his personal response.
Of course pilots and fire officials agreed that sending flight crews on low level sorties, buffeted by hurricane force winds, would have been a suicide mission. My suggestion at the time was that perhaps Prather was exhausted, and didn’t realize that he was speaking to a hastily assembled press conference – rather than his chiefs and crews at the command post. As it turned out, that was partially the case.
By Wednesday, Time.com reports, Prather had nothing but accolades for Schwarzenegger.
His "personal attention" to firefighters battling the blazes "is inspiring - knowing the guy at the top is there with them," Prather said at a news conference near Los Angeles.
FEMA goes 0 for 6.
It's an unfortunate situation for FEMA. The good work that Paulison accomplished in the early stages of this disaster will never be remembered. The 5th Estate will scrutinize everything that the agency does from this moment on, regardless of its merit. And David Paulison, a good man with fine intentions, will take the fall and likely lose his position.
The campaign in California is still in disaster mode, so it's a bit early to be critiquing the operation. But there is one thing that I'd like to share. In my mind there are two ways to fix FEMA. Immediately turn the agency over to the US Coast Guard -- or sub-contract national disaster response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s Office of Emergency Services.