Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin wept Tuesday as she laid bare her lingering concerns about the county’s failure to warn many people in the path of the deadly October wildfires, telling her colleagues and community members she was deeply troubled by inadequate efforts to alert the public of the catastrophe.
“All my life I placed my faith in the professionals — you guys rock,” Gorin said after a morning presentation from the top county emergency official during the Board of Supervisors’ daylong study of their disaster response system. “And to tell you that I am horribly disappointed is an understatement.”
Her voice trembling from the start, Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the fires, told of the “horror stories” recounted to her over the past four months by friends and constituents in Sonoma and Bennett valleys, where two people were killed and more than 650 homes were destroyed in the three-week inferno.
“My heart bleeds every time,” she said, linking the accounts she’d heard of that first night directly to the county’s much-criticized failure to send more widespread emergency alerts in the initial firestorm. “I hug them and listen to them. Not one person received an alert. What the hell are we doing here?”
Gorin’s comments marked perhaps the strongest and most personal rebuke from a local politician regarding the emergency alert system officials used to warn the public about the fast-moving wildfires that destroyed some 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in the county. They reflected an extraordinary, highly anticipated moment as the Board of Supervisors held a seven-hour public workshop to examine flaws in the county’s emergency response and identify ways to improve for future disasters.
Each supervisor voiced their own strong critique or call for action, though none more pointed than Gorin, who suggested the county’s failure on wireless alerts cost people their lives.
The shortcoming on alerts continues to draw intense criticism from anguished residents, many of whom were forced to flee in the middle of the night with little or no warning.
“I’m crushed that alert did not go out,” said Rincon Valley resident Jessica Tunis, whose mother, Linda Tunis, 69, died at the Journey’s End mobile home park.
“She called me from her burning house. I still have nightmares. No one should ever have to go through that again.”
Tunis told supervisors she wanted to know whether Amber Alert-style messages would be sent in future emergencies, saying she was wondering if residents would “have to save ourselves again.”
County officials have said they would send such alerts in future disasters. County Administrator Sheryl Bratton and Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said last week they were not aware of evidence showing the any of the fire deaths were linked to the failure to receive a wireless alert.
Jessica Tunis, 49, said she isn’t sure whether such measures would have saved her mother. Still, she said she wished they were used.
“I think it would have given her more of a chance to get out of her house sooner,” Tunis said an interview.
Tuesday’s meeting gave supervisors a broad platform to weigh in critically on other aspects of the county’s emergency response. The board’s two senior members — Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt — said county supervisors needed to be more directly involved in the emergency response. Zane faulted county administrative leaders for sidelining elected officials in such cases, saying supervisors were viewed as “a nuisance” at the county’s emergency operations center.