Golis: The serious business of preparing for disasters

DAVID HORSEY / Los Angeles Times



Poor Ted Cruz. The Texas senator built a political career telling Americans that government can’t be trusted. He even voted against federal disaster relief for New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Now he’s obliged to push for billions of dollars of government relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in his home state. For Cruz, having to admit that government can help people must be painful.

For chronic critics of government, there wasn’t much to say during the two weeks of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Meteorologists, police, firefighters, road crews, utility workers, National Guard, elected officials, pilots and scientists who flew into the storms, officials at every level who coordinated disaster plans and cleanup efforts — they’re all from the government.

These two weeks reminded us there’s a reason communities prepare for natural disasters. Calamities happen, and the more we prepare, the less people will suffer.

Irma hammered Florida, but the toll would have been much worse without improved forecasts, evacuation plans, new building codes and thousands of men and women who trained to save lives and property.

Christopher Helgren, the emergency manager for Sonoma County, told me the big and complicated task of preparing for disasters has become more collaborative and formalized in the years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency website now lists more than 60 colleges that offer degrees in emergency management.)

“Everybody realizes that in these events, no matter how big you are, you’re going need to ask for help,” he said.

The fact that recent disasters have not been as catastrophic as they could have been, he added, proves “our investments have started to pay off.” (In 1900, a hurricane that struck the Texas Gulf Coast is said to have killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.)

Californians have spent the last two weeks thinking: Gee, I’m glad I don’t live where there are hurricanes. Meanwhile, they’ve tried to quiet the voices in their heads that said: But what about wild fires? What about earthquakes?

In case you missed it, last week marked the second anniversary of the Valley fire in Lake County, a disaster that killed four people, destroyed 1,280 homes and caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damages.

Last week, a couple thousand miles to the south, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The quake leveled buildings and killed more than 90 people.

So, yes, disasters, natural and otherwise, will happen.

Out of public view, state and local agencies spend a lot of time planning and training for every imaginable emergency scenario. It’s what they do.

In addition to public safety and public works personnel, more than 180 other employees of Sonoma County government train on a regular basis to assume specific roles in an emergency. Their goal is to have three shifts of workers able to operate over an extended period of time.

Representatives of county departments, cities, fire departments, state agencies, schools and relief agencies also meet every quarter to discuss training exercises that respond to specific disaster scenarios.

“We preach all year-long about being prepared, not just on a state level but on a local and family level as well,” Bryan May, a public information officer for the state Office of Emergency Services, told me.

During Harvey and Irma, state officials have been busy dispatching California crews to help in Texas and Florida — first responders trained in urban search and rescue, swift-water rescue, air reconnaissance and emergency medical care.

“We train for those kinds of disasters year round, and that’s been going on for several years. We’re one of the first states other states reach out to when they need help,” May said.

In Texas and Florida, the postmortems will take time. “There will be what we would describe as a debrief afterward,” May explained. “FEMA’s going to be in Texas and Florida probably for the next couple of years.”

California may not have hurricanes, but there are common challenges associated with disasters — training, evacuation plans, search and rescue, power outages, the availability of medical care, shortages of food and water, the reliability of transportation systems and of the electric grid.

I asked May what three things every California household should do to prepare for a major earthquake.

“Top of the list with a bullet on it,” he began, “would be to have a plan. Make sure if your family’s not together that you have a place to meet. Just have a plan with water available, batteries available, food supplies. Just have a plan.”

He finally concluded, “Have a plan would be one, two and three on that list.”

Watching the responses to the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, I thought about the job of coordinating the countless people and organizations involved in efforts to keep folks safe. In Hurricane Irma, the entire state of Florida was in danger.

“It’s gargantuan, and these people (the first responders), they’re also affected in a disaster,” said Sonoma County’s Helgren. “They have to look out for their own lives, too.”

When the next disaster happens, it’s safe to predict that government will be better prepared than the rest of us. Just don’t tell Ted Cruz.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at