When a disaster strikes, help may not come quickly.
It is a painful lesson pounded home over and over again, one all too recent for residents of Texas communities ravaged by Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago — and one that looms directly ahead for people still in the path of Hurricane Irma.
In Sonoma County, some citizens aren’t waiting for a catastrophe to learn this lesson the hard way. Instead, they are banding together to prepare their communities in advance for the isolation and injuries that can follow a major earthquake or other natural disaster.
“I need to take care of myself. I need to take care of my family, and this is a great avenue to follow through,” said Linda Stout, who coordinates a civilian emergency response team formed in Bodega Bay.
The Bodega Bay group, one of hundreds of such teams across the nation established under guidelines by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is the largest team of its kind in Sonoma County. Its 75 members have been certified in basic skills of search and rescue, fire suppression, triage, disaster psychology and other disciplines outlined in FEMA curriculum.
The idea is empowering individuals to secure their families and homes, before reaching out to neighbors and the broader community when first responders like firefighters and paramedics might be overcommitted or impeded from reaching affected areas. Known as Community Emergency Response Teams, these civilian squads also assist professionals if the opportunity allows.
“We are the boots on the ground for them,” Stout said.
The Bodega Bay team, with about 15 years of experience and organization, is the most robust example of a CERT program in Sonoma County, though it is not alone.
Residents of Sea Ranch have created an extensive disaster preparation and response plan with street-by-street damage and injury assessment, medical volunteers and three well-supplied staging/shelter locations, according to its website.
In flood-prone Guerneville, residents began creating a CERT program two years ago modeled on the Bodega Bay initiative. It has 22 members, including five nurses, a retired sheriff’s deputy and a retired firefighter, though anyone willing to commit to monthly training sessions is welcome.
The team includes neighboring communities like Cazadero, Forestville and Rio Nido. The goal is for each community to have two or three members, at least, so they can partner with trained individuals, said Marilyn Fox, a retired clinical psychologist who serves as the team’s volunteer coordinator.
“You do not work alone,” Fox said.
The city of Santa Rosa has pursued an alternative course, using its COPE program — short for Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies — to help neighborhoods coordinate disaster preparedness and planning. Part of the process may involve identifying residents’ expertise, equipment and resources that may be useful after a catastrophe, though there is no particular training or certification involved.
The system is set up to give neighborhood volunteers full control, so they are self-reliant and can operate independently of city representatives, said Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Loewenthal, who coordinates community outreach for the COPE program.
“It’s training residents to basically interact with their neighborhood and figure out what their needs are, figure out how to support one another, and it can be as extensive or as elaborate as they like,” Loewenthal said.