Guest Opinion: It can happen. It will happen. Right here.
It's Monday night, 8:42 p.m. at a well-attended City Council meeting. All of a sudden the building starts shaking. Council members dive under the dais, which falls 10 feet into what was the emergency operations center, next to the city's main dispatch center for 911 calls. Lights and power go out. There are a series of loud crashes; ceiling tiles are falling, and you hear groans around you in the audience.
Our mayor looks at his hand-held unit and sees a text message: "The big one" has hit the Hayward Fault.
Then the unit blinks out, as cell sites fail. In a shaky but calm voice, he informs everyone what has happened.
As you struggle out to find a safer location, helping the injured, there is another severe aftershock, and another. Outside you smell gas and see fires that are starting to spread.
The sad realization is that:
* City fire and police staff who live out of the area will not be able to reach us, with the freeways in chaos and public transportation links broken. Police cars parked under the old police headquarters are crushed or trapped inside closed power-operated gates.
* Our Public Works and Utility workers won't be able to reach us either to re-establish gas and power.
* We have limited water to fight fires, since the earthquake has breached the Hetch Hetchy water supply and there is a minimal emergency supply.
You ask yourselves: "What do we wish we had done?"
With that image in mind, ask yourselves: "Why aren't we doing it now?"
This was the message I conveyed Saturday to the City Council during its "priority setting" retreat. It also is a message to the broader community.
In terms of being prepared for a major emergency, what makes this year different for Palo Alto? Why did the City Council name preparedness as a top priority for 2010?
Here is why this is a year of opportunity:
* The horrific events in Haiti have focused attention on earthquake devastation.
* City Manager Jim Keene has mentioned his intent to re-organize to combine all emergency-planning and Homeland Security functions into a cohesive unit.
* There is a reconstituted, revitalized Citizen Corps Council with serious projects.
The Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council (CCC) was re-established last August to coordinate all activities related to emergency planning and Homeland Security and as an official advisory body to the city manager, under a federally mandated program.
Areas of responsibility include natural disasters, human-caused disasters (including acts of terrorism), crime, public-health emergencies— disasters of all kinds. The new CCC will bring a diverse mix of stakeholders, public and private, together to share information about best practices and work on a variety of action-oriented projects.
There is already a critical mass, a core set of engaged volunteers, including a whole bowl-full of alphabet-soup names.
I am pleased to see emergency preparedness re-emerge as a city priority. It's something about which we should all be thinking.
Even though our city is faced with serious budget constraints in 2010, with relatively small funding our city will can get a large return on investment. With broad citizen involvement there is much we can do without much cost, if any, to the city.
Here are my suggestions to the city for measurable, attainable goals to assure that Palo Alto is a resilient community in a disaster:
* Organize for efficiency. All Homeland Security and emergency-planning functions should be aligned under the city manager's office, with connections to fire and police
* Develop a centralized, coordinated recruitment-and-intake process for volunteers. Combine interest in all public-safety volunteer opportunities. There are several complementary efforts underway: coordinators for blocks or neighborhoods; citizens who are trained in disaster response, ham-radio operators and Red Cross volunteers.
There are gaps that need filling and overlaps that need defining. We need more help from more people to build a cohesive, integrated community-response system.
We need to develop serious and robust volunteer opportunities. We have barely scratched the surface, and meaningful work inspires people to volunteer and recruit friends.
For residents and their families, we should teach personal-preparedness course quarterly, and use the Internet to help convey vital information by way of existing city, neighborhood and news websites: www.paneighborhoods.org/ep, www.PaloAltoOnline.com and www.CityofPaloAlto.org.
We can host a Midpeninsula "emergency-preparedness faire" in the fall.
In spite of current budget constraints, we need to develop a cost-effective plan to build a new seismically sound public-safety building to ensure continued police and fire operations during and after an emergency.
It has been said that the first help in a disaster will come from neighbors, not the government. We saw this in many areas in Haiti, sadly not all. The difference I believe was local leadership. As the poverty-plagued Haitians showed us, all citizens can take simple steps to be resources in a disaster — not victims.
Here are some ideas for first steps in your own personal preparedness.
* Make sure that you have water and food for you and your family for seven days.
* Discuss a disaster plan with your family — a place to meet and an out-of-area contact.
* Build a kit. See the Palo Alto Neighborhood website www.paneighborhoods.org/ep.
* Get informed. There are many choices. Here are two: (1) Recruit a leader in preparedness for your block, or be one yourself. Drop by Cubberley Community Center this Saturday (Feb. 6) at 10 a.m., Room IA, to learn about the block-coordinator program. Information is at www.mimi.com/mra/pan/ep/BPC020610.pdf ; (2) Classes to become a City of Palo Alto disaster-response volunteer (PANDA) start Feb. 17. To enroll call 650-617-3197.
There is a role for everyone in emergency preparedness. There's an old saying: "Chance favors those who are prepared; those most likely to gain advantage in chaos are those most prepared for it."
Annette Glanckopf is a longtime leader in the Midtown neighborhood of Palo Alto and a founder of the citywide Palo Alto Neighborhoods organization, and chairs its Emergency Preparedness Committee. She can be e-mailed at email@example.com.