Pioneers of disaster attempt to plan for chaos

Weekend tent city participants practice for the 'Big One' -- or whatever other really bad thing comes along

You could call them the pioneers of disaster.

They are Palo Altans who take the likelihood of a major earthquake seriously enough to reach out to neighbors and attempt to plan for the probable chaos.

Nearly 60 of them slept under the stars in Juana Briones Park Saturday night in an effort to ferret out the assorted problems that will arise in a real disaster.

Toilets, for example.

If homes are destroyed and thousands are forced to live out in the open, where will people go to the bathroom?

Soap emerged as another issue.

Even if drinking water is available, how will people keep their hands and bodies clean while living outdoors for days or weeks after the major earthquake geologists have predicted?

"Even though I know there could be a disaster, there's this gap between knowing there could be one and actually doing anything about it," Barron Park resident Marie Mandoli said in a conversation outside the tents of "Quakeville" Sunday morning.

"Acting out an event like this made me realize how little I have together. I don't have what I need to survive, let alone help my neighbors," said Mandoli, a lifelong Palo Altan who lives with her 91-year-old mother.

Recent events -- including last week's fatal gas explosion in San Bruno and February's day-long power outage following an East Palo Alto plane crash -- brought the possibility of a major disaster a bit closer to home.

In Palo Alto, only about 30 professional fire and medical responders will be on duty to help the city's 59,000 residents in any major disaster, according to a representative of the all-volunteer group Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activities (PANDA).

Responders will make triage decisions using available networks of volunteers and neighborhood groups.

In the scenario sketched out Sunday, neighbors organized through "block captains" will check in on one another while PANDA volunteers roam the city to feed real-time information about need levels to fire, police and medical responders.

The weekend disaster-simulation event had certain aspects of preaching to the choir. Most participants already had civic links through a neighborhood association or a Boy Scout troop.

But newcomers showed up as well.

Norm Schwab arrived late Saturday and pitched a tent with his wife and four children, ages 7, 6, 3 and 1.

"We're new to this neighborhood -- we moved here only about a year ago -- and we think disaster preparedness is very worthwhile," Schwab said Sunday morning as he fed a bagel with cream cheese to his 3-year-old daughter Atara.

"We were inspired to come out here so the kids could run around and meet friends."

Organizers, including a host of neighborhood and disaster preparedness groups, hope to repeat the simulation in other Palo Alto parks.

"There's no way the city has enough emergency personnel to even come close to taking care of the entire community in the event of disaster," Mayor Pat Burt told the campers, assembled around a group of picnic tables Sunday morning.

"This type of organization is going to be the lifeblood of that, and public parks will be one of those key sites."

Besides PANDA, other participants over the weekend included emergency preparedness officials from the City of Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, Explorer cadets from the Palo Alto Fire Department, and Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) -- not to be confused with PANDA -- an independent umbrella group to foster communication among neighborhoods.

The chief organizer was Alain Pinel Realtor Lydia Kou, who volunteers as emergency preparedness coordinator for the Barron Park neighborhood and as a coordinator of "preparedness coordinators" for streets around the city.

"Our main objective is to get neighbors prepared prior to disaster," Kou said. "Then, when emergency happens, you know your neighbors and can check up on each other."

Kathleen Hughes, a community leader and mother of four from the Leland Manor neighborhood, noted: "We're all in this together."

Related material:

'Quakeville' has surprise 'missing person' search

Images from Palo Alto's Quakeville campout/drill

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Like this comment
Posted by Scout
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 12, 2010 at 7:45 pm

As a teen I went to a scout camp where we dug our own latrines and piled the dirt back daily with a mixture of toilet chemicals and dirt. In an emergency, we would need these chemicals and a couple of spades to dig latrines in our parks or wherever. Hand sanitizer and toilet paper would also be needed.

Like this comment
Posted by Koa
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 13, 2010 at 10:14 am

Interesting. I didn't know that city parks were open to the public for weekend camping. Looks like I've got my plans for next Saturday.

Like this comment
Posted by Lydia Kou
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 15, 2010 at 6:29 pm

City parks are NOT open to the public for overnight camping on any day. I think that Foothills Park in Palo Alto may be the only one with a campground and you may need reservations to camp there, check out the requirements or get more information on the City's website.

Quakeville was an Emergency Preparedness drill sponsored by the City of Palo Alto.

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