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Golis: Disaster preparedness? What could possibly go wrong?

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In impoverished countries, people were sitting in the dark, while in California, the fifth largest economy on Earth, people were … sitting in the dark.

This month’s power outages, affecting millions of Californians, become the latest object lesson for a state that needs to recapture the meaning of stewardship. From public utilities to highway maintenance, from housing to public education, no one would accuse California of being overly concerned with its legacy to future generations.

The power was turned off because Pacific Gas and Electric Co. feared its transmission lines would cause wildfires when the wind blows. Since wind has been known to blow in California, we could wish that PG&E and the people in state government who regulate utilities could have done more to reduce the risk.

Having endured the hardships and the economic losses associated with one extended power outage, it’s not reassuring to note that fire season isn’t over, and early forecasts suggest more warm and windy weather could be ahead.

So the message is: Stay tuned.

Fortunately, in my own home, we’re prepared for whatever disaster comes our way.

Well, no. Unless you count a five-year-old supply of store-bought water in cheap plastic bottles and a couple of flashlights (wherever they are), I suspect we’re like most people, which is to say: pretending to be prepared.

This month’s blackout served as a test of what we might do in a more serious emergency — and we didn’t excel. Santa Rosa police reported 17 collisions involving cars and drivers unable to navigate intersections without functioning traffic lights.

It was no fun managing a loss of electricity for two days. (I began to twitch when my texts and emails were delayed.) What would people have done without water, natural gas, a roof over their heads, a food supply, a way to flush the toilet, an internet connection — or electricity? What if those conditions persisted for two weeks?

The first days of October brought other reminders of why we should be prepared for emergencies. The power blackout occurred almost two years to the day after the fires that destroyed 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. At the time, it was the worst wildfire disaster in state history.

Then last week came not one but two earthquakes in the Bay Area — with the second suspected of causing explosions at a Contra Costa County oil facility.

Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 63 people, collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and caused damages estimated at $6 billion.

And Oct. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of two major quakes that struck Santa Rosa in 1969, causing damage that would change the face of the city’s downtown.

Over the years, scientists have learned more about earthquakes in California — but not enough to tell you whether there will be an earthquake tomorrow or the next day. On Thursday, state officials unveiled an alert system that can provide a few seconds to prepare — presumably enough time to “drop, cover and hold on.”

Buildings are safer now because laws have been passed to require stricter standards for new buildings and retrofitting of the old ones.

Emergency drills seek to improve community responses when the next disaster comes along (though the responses to the 2017 fires became a reminder that we need to do better).

There is more to learn, of course, and more to do. No one can guarantee what will happen when what Californians call the Big One comes along.

A U.S Geological Survey scientist told the Los Angeles Times last week that the Bay Area is home to seven significant earthquake fault zones.

I won’t bore you with a list of what you (and I) should be doing to prepare for the next disaster. If you aren’t motivated, there’s nothing I can do to change your mind. (Google “disaster preparedness” and you will get 61.5 million responses, beginning with ready.gov)

Seismologist Lucy Jones — who is known in Southern California as “the earthquake lady” — told the New York Times last week that California needs even stronger building codes and more focus on protecting water supplies. “If it takes six months to get water back to everybody,” she said, “you’re going to have a lot of small businesses that aren’t going to survive.”

Jones then offered one final recommendation: “My last one is the most nebulous and potentially the most important. It’s that the research on disasters shows that the communities that recover are the ones where people are connected to each other and care about each other. Most of the messages about earthquake preparedness are very isolating. We need to start working with community organizations.”

At the end of last week, we purchased an emergency radio and water containers, made sure our first-aid kit was up to date, located the wrench that might be needed to turn off the gas in the event of a major earthquake and put in a new supply of nonperishable food.

Hey, it has to start somewhere. But I’ll wager most of us still won’t be prepared when the next disaster comes around.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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