Is Palo Alto ready for disaster?
City services remain vulnerable even as officials plan for a catastrophe
What if it's 5 p.m. and a 9.0-magnitude earthquake has just hit on the Hayward fault?
Palo Alto children are trapped in a day care center; fires have broken out at Stanford Research Park. Falling bricks have injured dozens on downtown Palo Alto streets. On roads and overpasses, cars have collided. Everyone is calling 911, jamming the city's dispatch center. Cell phones don't work.
But what if only 10 police officers and 29 firefighters — the city's usual personnel levels — were on duty to handle the crises unfolding for Palo Alto's daytime population of 120,000 people?
And what if only 40 electric-utilities workers and 30 gas-and-water employees were on hand to fix downed power and water systems throughout town?
The numbers aren't theoretical. These manpower capabilities were spelled out in spare terms in a 2007 city report.
"The city isn't going to be able to do everything or be everywhere in a disaster. ... We don't have the resources. No city will," Kelly Morariu, assistant to the city manager, said.
Police and City Council members agree, although some say Palo Alto is better prepared than other Bay Area communities.
"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," Mayor Patrick Burt concedes.
City officials and community groups are trying to close the preparedness gap. The Palo Alto City Council chose disaster preparedness as one of five city priorities for 2010. Every department is developing and upgrading its emergency plans.
Palo Alto has in fact been taking steps to address disaster readiness for the last 20 years, retrofitting some of its buildings in the 1980s and 1990s and taking on disaster-preparedness as a city priority in 2007 and 2008.
Former Mayor Judy Kleinberg convened a Citizen Corps Council, composed of local agencies and organizations, in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
The group eventually disbanded and was replaced by a Mayor's Red Ribbon Task Force, instituted by Kleinberg in 2005 to create a work plan. A new Citizen Corps Council has since emerged and is working with the city today.
Since 2001, Palo Alto has developed a terrorism-response plan; adopted a 2006 county-wide pandemic-influenza preparedness and response plan; developed a 2007 city-wide emergency operations plan; and adopted a 2009 foothills fire-management plan.
The city has come a long way since 2005, when nearly all of the city's decision makers, including the city manager and fire chief, were on vacation at the same time during a New Year's Eve winter storm. San Francisquito Creek was on the verge of flooding, Kleinberg recalled.
As she stood on the creek's banks watching the waters rise, Menlo Park emergency crews and utility trucks were assembled on the other side of the creek, but there was no emergency personnel on the Palo Alto side.
"I'll never forget seeing this physical divide," she said.
Nearly a decade after she first began looking into the city's readiness, Kleinberg said she still ponders the question: Is Palo Alto prepared?
Kenneth Dueker, the city's coordinator of Homeland Security and public outreach, takes Palo Alto's situation seriously. One of his top priorities is ensuring that citizens prepare themselves to cope during the time when police, fire and other personnel are diverted to major crises such as fires, collapsed overpasses or buildings, and trapped people.
He teaches radio-communication classes and trains residents through the Palo Alto Neighborhoods Block Preparedness Coordinator program, designed to organize and assess neighborhoods in disasters.
"People have this vague sense that we have 1,000 cops in Palo Alto. Odds of getting a police car or fire truck in a disaster, even with 10 times the staffing, are slim. We won't have enough. We have 30 square miles to cover," he said.
It takes 15 to 18 firefighters to respond safely to a structure fire such as a single-family home engulfed in flames. If there are just two fires or two significant search-and-rescue situations, all 29 firefighters would be occupied, he said.
Firefighters won't be able to respond to small fires or conduct searches for one or two missing people. Meanwhile, police won't be available to respond to property crimes, non-injury accidents or other disturbances, according to the 2007 city report.
At city intersections where traffic signals are down, drivers will be on their own: Officers will not be on hand to direct traffic. They'll be too busy handling life-threatening situations, managing crowds and evacuations and assisting at schools, the report indicated.
Utilities workers similarly will be stretched thin. If the city's electrical system were knocked out and the water supply shut down, only 40 electric-utility workers would be on duty to get the power up again. They first would have to contend with dangling live wires throughout the city that could cause electrocutions and fires after power is restored.
Only 30 gas, water and wastewater personnel would be on hand to check on and repair 9,311 natural-gas service lines and 207 miles of city gas mains, according to the city.
Meanwhile, there are just nine building inspectors to conduct safety assessments and inspections in a town of 27,000 homes and 8,000 businesses.
One solution Dueker would like to see is more affordable housing for firefighters and police.
In a disaster, under the California Civil Defense Act, all government employees are classified as disaster state workers. They are supposed to report to work. But if they cannot get to the city they work for they are to report to their city of residence, he said.
"If you live in Tracy and all of the bridges fall down, you're not going to get to Palo Alto to report to your job," he said.
"It's really good news for those communities. They're going to get all of our cops who are trained and paid for by Palo Alto," he said.
Police and interim Fire Chief Dennis Burns said he is less concerned about staffing deficits caused by personnel living outside the area — he believes the city will manage. What is concerning is the finding of a Red Cross report that only about 5 percent of Bay Area residents are prepared with basic necessities, such as food, water, radio and other supplies, he said.
"In a real emergency, something catastrophic, emergency medical services resources will be spread thin. In a real catastrophe, police and fire aren't going to be there. People should plan not for three days (of surviving on their own) but for two weeks," he said.
Dueker and Burns emphasized the critical need to train citizens at a June meeting of the city's Policy and Services Committee.
"If we fail to engage with the community's neighborhoods we will fail in everything we do," Dueker said.
The city is not without its trained residents, however. Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activities (PANDA) volunteers are skilled in light search and rescue, first aid and radio communications.
And Palo Alto is not tackling emergency preparedness alone. The city also is working closely with Menlo Park and East Palo Alto and regionally with Santa Clara County to address cooperative manpower and communications issues.
The city-sponsored Citizen Corps Council — composed of school, hospital, city department heads, neighborhood representatives, emergency organizations and Stanford Research Park personnel — is working to identify and develop a community emergency plan and a community disaster network that could work cooperatively, Burns said.
When it comes to the city's communications system, one of the scariest scenarios in Dueker's view — and played out to some extent during the Feb. 17 plane crash that knocked out power to Palo Alto — would be the loss of the dispatch and emergency-operations centers, located in City Hall.
Neither is adequately retrofitted to remain operational in a major quake, according to the city.
The Civic Center Tower was retrofitted in the 1980s, and the police department and the emergency-operations center were retrofitted between 1992 and 1994. They should remain standing in a large-magnitude quake. But the dispatch center and emergency-operations center facilities might not remain operational, according to Glenn Roberts, public works director.
Neither facility complies with the state Standards of Essential-Services Facilities Act, which requires pipes, lights, data systems and water to be secured, he said.
Suzan Minshall, emergency services coordinator, said the emergency-operations center's telephone and Internet service didn't work during February's power outage.
"So many people called the public-information line that it was jammed," she said.
"We were immediately faced with a communications issue — how to get the message out. It was real challenging. We tried to get info out to PANDA and Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) groups to find out if electricity was out for dependent neighbors," she said.
Residential block coordinators set up a radio network in the operations center during the incident and communicated with block coordinators in neighborhoods, who were able to check on elderly and disabled residents to quell confusion and ensure that home medical equipment wasn't compromised by the outage, she said.
"The biggest gap in technology and communications is when we lose power or the telephone system. To solve that would be a bona fide accomplishment," Dueker said.
Another problem is what Dueker and Burns call "interoperability," or the ability of various agencies and municipalities to communicate with one another.
Challenges include having a seamless communications system that connects city to city, city to county and city to neighborhoods, as well as developing agreed-upon procedures and protocol, Dueker said.
Enter Palo Alto's new Mobile Emergency Operations Center, a motor-home-sized communications center that solves several weaknesses in local emergency operations, Dueker said.
Its state-of-the-art technology surpasses the 1960s and 1970s systems currently in the emergency-operations center at City Hall. It isn't dependent on electricity; a generator keeps the system functioning and can be refueled regularly. It also won't collapse in an earthquake, he said.
The center can be driven anywhere. It functions as a community-wide disaster network that can connect with schools, the Red Cross, neighboring cities and even county, state and federal responders, he said.
"People say we don't invest in infrastructure. This is infrastructure," Dueker said, pointing to the 28 radio systems, multiple laptop ports, white boards and surveillance cameras that can assess traffic and emergency issues up to one-eighth of a mile.
The mobile center can accommodate up to 16 personnel inside and 25 or more around the perimeter and includes a 911-dispatch center for five operators.
Emergency personnel and police train in the mobile center continually, since the vehicle can be used for day-to-day operations such as major sports events and festivals, he said. The center was used at the opening football game at Stanford Stadium on Sept. 4 to coordinate traffic and crowds, he said.
Electricity and gas
Power remains one of the city's weakest infrastructure points, according to Burt.
All of the city's electrical power is transported from two lines feeding from the east. A third, supplemental line also supplies power, but there are no connection points from the west, he said.
Morariu shares Burt's concerns. The February plane crash disabled the electrical transmission lines.
It was "a phenomenal test of the system. It was tragic, but if it had gone on beyond the point it did there would have been more significant issues. People were coming home from work just as the power came back on," she said.
Not only are homes and businesses powered by electricity, but city systems such as traffic signals and water pumps are, too.
Although adding a western power line may seem necessary, electrical security won't come cheap, Burt and Morariu said.
The western connection could cost an estimated $50 million to $200 million, according to Morariu.
The city is investigating other transmission-path options jointly with PG&E, including burying a portion of one of the eastern PG&E lines underground. A preliminary report will take at least three to six months before being presented to the Utilities Advisory Commission for review and recommendations to the City Council, according to Linda Clerkson, communications manager for the city manager's office.
In the last four years, Palo Alto also prepared a preliminary design study for a connection to the 230-kiloVolt system that serves the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
"The system would be sized to serve the entire power needs of Palo Alto. It would be utilized on a normal basis for taking delivery of power to the city, not just for emergency use," she said.
The project is in the discussion phase, she added.
Natural-gas lines are more secure than electrical power, since the city currently has feeds from two separate supply sources, she said.
Though last week's San Bruno explosion has residents worried about the possibility of a similar incident occurring in Palo Alto, the city has more than 2,900 isolation valves in the gas-distribution system, according to Palo Alto Utilities Director Valerie Fong. These valves control or stop gas flow to individual city blocks.
"We can locate individual blocks of the system with existing valves. We can also isolate PG&E supplies to the city at our receiving stations," she said.
The city will be upgrading all four of the gas-receiving stations as part of its current maintenance schedule, including a re-build of the pressure-regulating system. The project will be open for bid by the end of this calendar year. Work on the re-build is anticipated to begin in May 2011 and be completed in October, prior to the start of the winter heating season, Clerkson said.
But the city is vigilant about maintaining and checking its pipes, she said.
"Currently, we are conducting our annual mobile leak survey of all gas mains in the city, which began at the beginning of September and runs for roughly a month. During 2009, Palo Alto utilities completed its annual walking survey to check for leaks of all 19,311 gas service lines. In addition, an annual mobile survey of all 205 miles of city gas main pipes was conducted.
"These surveys find few leaks — all of which are repaired quickly — and within the timelines required by the federal Department of Transportation.
"Of the city's 23,502 installed gas meters, fewer than 2.5 percent needed to be leak-tested and repaired," Clerkson said.
The city has been replacing all of its gas, water and wastewater pipelines to reduce seismic vulnerability, she added. There are no unfunded electricity or gas projects in the city's $500 million infrastructure backlog, she said.
The city is currently implementing a $50 million Emergency Water Supply and Storage project to ensure that Palo Alto has water if the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, from which the city receives its water, is damaged in an earthquake.
The emergency-water project includes installing a new 2.5-million-gallon reservoir at El Camino Park by 2013, along with building three new groundwater wells throughout the city, and rehabilitating the city's five existing groundwater wells.
A seismic analysis and upgrades at six existing water reservoirs are currently being performed, she said. A water-pumping system is nearly completed.
The system would provide water supplies for 30 days, with at least 8 hours' worth of water use a day, with four hours of water use a day allotted for fire suppression, according to the city.
Average water usage in the city is about 11 million gallons per day, according to Clerkson, with less during the winter and more during the summer.
How long the backup water supply would last depends upon how much residents would use and how much water is needed to quell fires, Clerkson said.
"To manage an unexpected reduction or disruption in supply, we would immediately ask customers to reduce their water usage, particularly if there was an emergency, such as an earthquake, which could cause longer-term disruptions," she added.
Powering water pumps could be a concern.
At one point during the February crash, city officials feared the water service would be disrupted because emergency generators that pump 2 million gallons had just six hours of power. The diesel-fueled generators were replenished in time, however, according to Morariu.
The city is planning to add onsite generators at both the El Camino Park site and at its Mayfield pumping station/reservoir site, Clerkson said. All of the wells have the ability to be supplied by portable generators. The city currently has a fleet of three generators dedicated to the water service, she said.
Normal delivery of water from Hetch Hetchy does not require electrical power, as the delivery system is gravity fed. The exception to this hydraulic delivery system is water supplies in the foothills west of Interstate 280. There are several reservoirs in the foothills that should be able to meet the demand until generators are placed at the pumping facilities to supplement the stored water, she said.
As with manpower and communication, the city is not operating in isolation. Palo Alto has water-interconnection locations and agreements with Mountain View, East Palo Alto, Stanford, and Purissima Hills Water District in the event of a shortage. Additional agreements are in development, according to Clerkson.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Part 2 in a series