Saturday, October 27, 2007

In A Word: California’s Disaster Response Was "Smooth."

Commentary By: Lou Angeli

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.

So why is the Left Coast better prepared to deal with Mother Nature’s nasty side? In a word – planning. Starting from the Governor’s office down to the smallest volunteer fire brigade, the state has developed contingencies for large-scale disasters.

Statewide Coordination and Cooperation

The state’s Office of Emergency Services serves as the Governor’s direct connection to all emergency services in California. When it came to this week’s wildfire disaster, OES is what FEMA wishes it could be -- an agency that is on the street within hours of a disaster, and well-organized under a common Incident Command System.

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

The order also reaffirmed how the state’s automatic mutual aid system would function under the California Fire Assistance Agreement. S-07-07 was presented in such detail that the Governor even indicated a minimum staffing level for fire engines. (1)
Take Charge Governor

When the situation went from bad to worse, Schwarzenegger made certain that he was front and center. While flying to speak at a conference in Long Beach, he learned that a major evacuation was taking place in San Diego County. He diverted his helicopter directly to the firefront, where he took command as if he were a 30-year firefighting salt. (If it counts, he did play the role of a firefighter in a 2002 motion picture.)

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.

“Do we have enough toilet paper, do we have enough toilets?" Schwarzenegger said at a press conference after his tour. "Do we have everything we need for the people here so they can stay overnight?"

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.

“The most important thing is you jump into action as quickly as possible," he said. The public needs to see "that you are a hands-on governor," that you "take care of the firefighters" and feel the pain of people who have lost their homes. (

The Question of Early Aircraft Intervention

In an earlier blog I made note of criticism leveled against Schwarzenegger by Chief Chip Prather, the boss of the very large Orange County Fire Authority. Chief Prather, a well-known national fire administrator, chastised the Governor and the state for banning firefighting aircraft from the skies during the early stages of the fire.

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, 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.

On Thursday, the situation was still very serious, but sunlight was beginning to peak through the constant haze of chocking smoke. With the Santa Anas dying down, and tankers dousing the flames, firefighters were making remarkable progress. Many evacuees were permitted to return to their neighborhoods, and for those families who lost their homes, the process of re-establishing their lives was beginning.
Following the Katrina debacle, FEMA’s David Paulison promised better and more immediate response to large-scale disasters. His plan did, in fact, take place. The agency immediately deployed the Federal Incident Response Team (FIRST) out of Atlanta aboard a Coast Guard C-130. The advance team hit the ground running and began to coordinate emergency support for the thousands of evacuees at the Qualcomm shelter.

However, a quick visit to FEMA’s website reveals that the agency was taking credit for the hard work of others. The website suggests that FEMA had been coordinating the military response to San Diego County, which is far from the truth.

The military is a major presence in San Diego County, with some 300,000 of its personnel and dependants living there. Like any good neighbor would do, the NAVY, Marines, Reserves and National Guard stepped up to assist state government in the early stages, while FEMA was still watching the disaster play out on CNN.

Then there was FEMA’s fake press conference. Yes – like a parody from The Colbert Report, America's favorite federal agency staged a phony briefing on Tuesday with FEMA employees posing as legitimate members of the press. Real-life reporters were given just 15 minutes notice of the press conference, however for those who weren't able to make it, the agency offered a toll-free 800 listen-only line.

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.

Lessons Learned

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.


(1) OES

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