Palo Alto embarks on disaster preparations
City assesses its emergency readiness with series of events
Palo Alto is not prepared for a major disaster, but it's better prepared than most cities.
That, at least, is the opinion of Mayor Pat Burt, a view echoed by other city officials.
"By comparison to other cities, Palo Alto is an 8. To where we should be, we're probably a 3. It means all of us are under-prepared," Burt said recently.
Emergency preparation is one of the city's top five priorities for 2010, the City Council decided in January. September has been declared emergency-preparedness month.
In the coming months, community groups and city officials will explore just how prepared — or unprepared — Palo Alto really is for disaster.
The council has scheduled a study session on the topic Monday (Sept. 13).
A series of community events have been planned for September and October to raise public awareness and help focus neighborhoods and schools prepare for a disaster.
On Saturday (Sept. 11), Barron Park residents will participate in a tent-city drill, called "Quakeville," in Juana Briones Park. The 18-hour event will test people's abilities to cope in the aftermath of a disaster.
If a major earthquake were to strike, various city systems — electrical power, water, communications and the emergency-operations center — could be rendered either inoperable or minimally operable for days or weeks, according to police and city officials.
"People should plan to be on their own not for three days but for two weeks. In a real catastrophe, police and fire aren't going to be there," Police and interim Fire Chief Dennis Burns said.
A 2007 city emergency-preparedness overview found that fire fighters would only be able to take on two structural fires at any given time. Only eight to 10 patrol officers are on duty simultaneously and could have to manage a daytime population of more than 120,000.
The city's systems were most recently tested in February, when a twin-engine Cessna knocked out all three electrical conduits to Palo Alto, causing a crippling power outage.
The power failure affected about 27,000 homes and many of the city's 18,000 businesses, cutting off or limiting communications, cell-phone and Internet service, snarling traffic and threatening to shut down the city's water supply.
The event caused city and emergency-operations officials to scrutinize their disaster preparedness.
Some glaring problems remain. The city continues to be vulnerable to power outages. All electrical lines into the city feed in from the east; no such lines run from a power station to the west, a fact that became clear on Feb. 17, Burt said.
The city's emergency-operations center — the nerve center in a disaster — is housed in the basement of City Hall and doesn't meet state seismic-integrity standards for operational facilities, Burns said.
An underground water reservoir planned for El Camino Park won't be completed until 2013, according to Linda Clerkson, communications manager in the city manager's office.
Yet Palo Alto has some key infrastructure projects in the pipeline. Nearly all of the emergency water-pumping stations are completed. Most overpasses and bridges are retrofitted, according to utilities and public works officials.
A new multi-million-dollar mobile emergency-operations command vehicle — a communications- and-strategy-center on wheels — was recently delivered to the city and became operational.
The vehicle will be unveiled at Quakeville and on Oct. 21 at City Hall during an event to honor emergency-preparedness volunteers, according to Kenneth Dueker, the city's coordinator of homeland security and public outreach.
It will take many years of planning, coordination — and money — to reach all of the city's goals, Burt said. Even then, preparation will remain ongoing.
"Emergency prep is like a big spider web," said Kelly Morariu, assistant to the city manager.
Beginning Sept. 17, the Weekly will explore Palo Alto's disaster readiness with a series of articles on the city's infrastructure, neighborhood preparedness, hospitals and profiles of key players who are working to make — and keep — Palo Alto safe.
Part 1 in a series
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.