FEMA PrepTalks in Santa Rosa emphasizes individual need for disaster preparation

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Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore paused his pacing and let the words on the screen above him in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts bring home his message about emergency preparedness and disaster response.

“WAKE UP,” said the top line of Gore’s slide, followed by “WAKE UP OTHERS” and “STAY WOKE.”

Preparing to react to the next flood, wildfire or earthquake — and sharing plans with residents — are the vital steps local government officials must take in disaster-prone areas like Northern California, Gore told dozens of emergency officials Tuesday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Santa Rosa PrepTalks event.

Otherwise, “you will find yourselves in a world of hurt later,” Gore said.

He was among the first county officials in the aftermath of the 2017 fires to admit that the county’s emergency warning system had failed to alert many of those in the inferno’s path. Authorities should have done better to prepare themselves and the public for a countywide disaster, he said.

On Tuesday, Gore was one of several presenters at the PrepTalks symposium, which focused not only on how local governments could prepare to withstand and respond to natural disasters but on the importance of neighbors talking to each other to ensure a higher chance of survival — particularly in a flood-, fire- and quake-prone state. Previous editions of the FEMA-sponsored lectures have focused on response to the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, keeping students safe from active shooters and preparing for a major disease pandemic.

“They’re like TED Talks for emergency managers,” said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s own emergency manager, adding that he hoped to take home new techniques for engaging with local residents.

“In Sonoma County, this is really where we’re at: to build a culture of preparedness,” he said.

Tuesday’s morning session included a presentation on how San Francisco officials are turning to block parties as tools to plan for emergencies at the most local of levels and a discussion of how a Southern California radio station’s series on what would happen if Los Angeles were slammed by a catastrophic temblor.

Daniel Homsey, director of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network, recalled how his aunt died during a heat wave after none of her neighbors checked on her. That loss fuels his work putting together dozens of block parties each year to increase social cohesion and disaster readiness. He said he credits his father’s strong bond with his neighbors for saving his life during a more recent blast of hot weather.

Anecdotes like that are prized by journalists who cover natural disasters, public safety and emergency preparedness, said KPCC science reporter Jacob Margolis, who with executive producer Arwen Nicks and producer Misha Euceph created a podcast called “The Big One: A Survival Guide” that examines how more than 10 million people would be affected if a big earthquake shook Southern California.

Their show has been downloaded more than 1 million times and has generated responses from listeners who felt inspired to plan for such a disaster after hearing a broadcast.

Margolis encouraged emergency managers to be comfortable sharing their own perspectives with the public and with journalists, as their personal histories can supplement nuts-and-bolts information and make for more effective communications.

“The best stories really come from those personal relationships,” he said.

Tuesday’s event was only the second time a PrepTalks symposium had been held outside of Washington, D.C., said Bob Fenton, FEMA’s Oakland-based regional administrator. Santa Rosa made for an obvious backdrop following the October 2017 wildfires that destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County and killed 24 people.

“I think it’s a good setting for a recent, large-scale disaster where we’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Fenton said. “There are things that we can do better, and there are things that are occurring right now with the recovery that are, quite frankly, going very well.”

Afternoon talks included a presentation from an Orange County fire official on instilling a mission into a public service agency; a professor who specializes in presenting and communicating emergency information; and the president of an engineering firm on how building codes and standards can foster disaster resiliency.

The goal for emergency management officials, Fenton said, was to educate people on the risks of their environment and to emphasize to residents that they should work closely with each other to increase their chances of surviving a major disaster.

“To think in these big events — and we’ve seen them a lot in California recently — that first responders will know everyone on the block and know each individual’s need is a tall order and probably is not going to happen,” he said. “By having the community take ownership of that and helping with that, together with first responders we can solve the problem and help save more lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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