Central Coasters have false sense of security about natural disaster

Special to The TribuneApril 13, 2013 

San Luis Obispo County has some of the best weather in the world. Because of its idyllic conditions, Central Coast residents are often lulled into a false sense of security about the possibility of a natural disaster, but they do occur from time to time.

In 1969, nearly 40 inches of rain was recorded in San Luis Obispo during January and February, and it produced extensive flooding.

My mother’s ancestors came to California by covered wagon over the Sierra Nevada in the summer of 1847, a few months after the Donner Party tragedy. They settled in the vast Sacramento Valley — in what is now Colusa County — and tried to build a future on the banks of the Sacramento River. About 13 years later they took refuge in the nearby Sutter Buttes as many parts of the Great Central Valley flooded. Sonora in the Sierra Nevada foothills received 100 inches of rain over a two-month period!

The magnitude of the above perils put into sharp focus the need for all of us to prepare for natural disasters. The canard of an ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure certainly rings true. However, the real trick is to bring community members with different experiences and skill sets together and work as a team to prepare, execute and recover from a variety of emergencies that can occur simultaneously.

I witnessed the importance of this type of preparedness firsthand when I attended a training event this past week at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg Md. San Luis Obispo County law enforcement, fire, medical, education, county and city officials along with representatives from the private sector came together to learn how work as an integrated team.

This group of first responders began each training day with lectures taught by knowledgeable instructors with years of first-hand experience, such as the 9/11 attacks, the Oakland Hills fire and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These classes progressed into scenario-related, large-scale exercises of increasing complexity and threat that required participants to work as a team to be successful. In other words, the FEMA instructors tossed various scenarios to the students, from wildfires to tsunamis and everything in between.The results were stunning.

Dave Mathe, emergency planning coordinator for the Five Cities Fire Authority, attended the Maryland program five years ago. He was so impressed with the quality of training and the potential to save lives and property that he donated almost 1,000 hours of his own time to apply for the federal grant, coordinate participants, set up logistics and help write many of the exercise scenarios. The federal grant covered the costs, which was particularly valuable at a time where local training budgets are strained.

Tracey Vardas, emergency planning coordinator with PG&E told me, “It was some of the most comprehensive and coordinated training evolutions I’ve been involved with. This type of community-based interaction will certainly help all of us prepare for future emergencies.”

This same praise was echoed by other attendees. Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham said that “Often elected officials are not fully aware of all aspects involved in responding when a natural disaster occurs. Spending the week in this class highlighted the roles of the elected, but gave an important picture of how all the cogs in the wheel interact.”

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said “There was great value in working with other Central Coast first responders; to know the best methods to organize and strengthen their assets and abilities during emergencies.”

Paul Deis, emergency service manager for the Red Cross San Luis Obispo County, who recently returned from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, told me, “This type of training brought home the need to work as a team to preserve our precious community during trying times”.

Supervisor Paul Teixeira, said it best. “You can’t put a price on getting to know our fellow first responders and learn their need’s before an emergency actually occurs. This knowledge will drastically reduce the time to respond and recover from emergencies.”

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