From cyberattacks to earthquakes, officials consider Palo Alto's readiness

City Council to discuss report on biggest threats facing city

Earthquakes, floods and cyberthreats top the list of potential dangers facing Palo Alto, according to a new report that lays out strategies for dealing with future disasters.

Prepared by the city's Office of Emergency Services with assistance from the consulting firm Dewberry, the report lists the leading threats that the city can expect to face in the years ahead and recommends strategies for addressing these threats. Known as the "Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment," the report "will be used to inform ongoing planning efforts throughout the city," according to a staff report the City Council will consider Monday, Sept. 22.

"A continuous cycle of assessing capabilities, plans, and programs and incorporating the results into future THIRAs allows a jurisdiction to manage changes to its risk landscape," the report states. "It also provides the means to educate and update individuals, families, businesses, organizations, community leaders, and senior officials on the risks facing a community."

To determine Palo Alto's emergency-prevention priorities, the city and its consultants listed a menu of potential disasters, in various categories, and asked a committee of stakeholders to score each disaster based on its likelihood to occur in Palo Alto. The committee included staff from various city departments as well as officials from Stanford University, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and members of surrounding law-enforcement agencies.

When it comes to natural disasters, earthquakes, floods and severe storms were ranked at the top of the list, according to the committee, which scored potential disasters based on both impact and probability. The greatest hazards when it comes to earthquakes, the report states, are associated with "fault rupture" and "ground shaking" though there are also "liquefaction hazards" east of U.S. Highway 101 because of the high water-content of the soil."

Flooding is also "expected to continue to occur in Palo Alto," particularly tidal flooding from levees near the Baylands and from creeks. The city, along with the entire Bay Area, is also subject to increasing flood risk because of rising sea levels, the report states.

The working group also considered a list of likely technological hazards, with airplane accidents, hazardous-material spills and urban fires deemed the highest threats. In the category of "human-caused threats," meanwhile, the highest threats were in the categories of "major crime," "cyber attack" and "workplace violence."

With cyber attacks, one of the difficulties is that "its origin can be virtually anyone, virtually anywhere," the report states. This includes "bot-network operators" who take over multiple computer systems to coordinate attacks; criminal groups looking to make money; disgruntled organization insiders with unrestricted access to computer data; and hackers who break into networks "for the thrill of the challenge or for bragging rights in the hacker community."

The report notes that given its location in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is "home to many large companies that could be subject to cyber attack." The city government mitigates this threat by having three three levels of security on its computers to prevent cyber attacks: an anti-virus system on desktops and laptops; a malware protection system for Web and email systems; and a firewall for the IT network. The city also has "access control" measures such as ID cards and badges to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive areas.

The report suggests, however that these measure do not entirely eliminate the threat.

"Humans are the weakest link in a chain of cybersecurity," the threat-assessment report states. "It remains difficult to continuously monitor and manage human/operator vulnerability."

To address this weakness, the report notes, the City has deployed an online security training program, which all employees are required to complete annually.

For each of these disasters, the report lays out the city's current methods for mitigating the threats. It also includes recommendations that the city should adopt to minimize the danger. These include constructing a new public-safety building to replace the small and seismically unsound police headquarters at City Hall; conducting training and emergency-prevention exercises with private-sector entities such as Stanford Industrial Park and Stanford Shopping Center; and "cultivating a culture of preparedness and community connection" through broad outreach to schools, city staff and other community stakeholders.

The report also notes in its conclusion that the city and its local partners "should be commended for the tremendous capabilities currently available to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from hazards and threats." It lauds the city's partnership with Stanford University, Stanford Hospital and neighboring jurisdictions and for the bountiful opportunities residents have to contribute through volunteer programs such as CERT, the Neighborhood and Block Preparedness and Coordinator program; the Palo Alto Auxiliary Communications Services; and the Palo Alto Medical Reserve Corps.

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3 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 10:34 am

And just how is the City going to prevent earthquakes, as the tagline for this article suggests?

2 people like this
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 10, 2014 at 11:10 am

What a surprise:

"For each of these disasters, the report lays out the city's current methods for mitigating the threats. These include constructing a new public-safety building to replace the small and seismically unsound police headquarters at City Hall; ..."

Did they happen to mention fixing traffic gridlock???

How much did we pay for this report that brilliantly recommended installing virus protection and firewalls?

1 person likes this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 11:52 am

> How much did we pay for this brillian report?

This morning's POST reports that the City paid over 75,000 to the "experts" who crafted this report.

This is on top of the $130K we are paying the person named as the Emergency Services Manager. Given the fact that Palo Alto has suffered from two major earthquakes and two major, but localized, floods over the past 100 years--it's really difficult to understand if the report that we got for this money actually was worth this hefty bit of cash.

We do have to wonder if this report actually dealt with any of the emergencies that we have believed that would not happen here--such as medical emergencies that can walk off of an airplane in San Francisco, and soon be in Palo Alto--like Ebola, or even Black Fever (commonly called the Plague).

And then there is small, to large, atomic attacks--which would make a pretty big mess out of Palo Alto. What exactly does the City see as its response to one, or more, 10MT explosion(s) here, or somewhere in the Silicon Valley?

The flood issue needs to be considered after the current set of proposed solutions are in place. Some time ago, a group of people in North Palo Alto were able to enlist the help of a Stanford professor who was in charge of a hydrology lab (or some such). This Stanford fellow was able to acquire an Army Corps of Engineers computer program that was able to model rivers, and floods. This program provided some interesting output that helped craft some of the solutions to the Creek problem that this group proposed.

If this sort of modeling of San Francisquito Creek is not performed by the City (or the JPA) then any speculations about flooding in the future will prove less-than-useful. Did this highly paid City Emergency Manager take that into account?

And what about power outages? The City currently is subject to complete city-wide power outages when irresponsible pilots, or inexperienced pilots, fly their airplanes into the single high-tension feed that brings power to our town. For most of us, this is an emergency. What kind of prevention of any further disruptions of our power supply will this Emergency Services Manager be able to put in place?

By-in-large, this looks like a 75,000 advertisement for a new police station--while ignoring all of the other important City services swinging in the breeze.

Another example of why Palo Alto City Government is not transparent, or all that effective.

1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbors Helping Neighbors
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN)would like our un-housed and housed "overburdened" residents included in the "most vulunerable" categories OF THE City's emergency plan in the event of man-made or natural disaster. The historically high rents and cost of basic needs is causing a significant number of households to be financially unstable and displaced. These residents do not have the money to assemble emergency food supplies or survival items, beyond personal contact lists/important papers and clothing. NHN holds a monthly grocery program and we do keep some extra food for emergency bags of groceries during the month but our reserves can not sustain all the un-housed & housed 'at risk' folks on our rosters, currently 1500+. Twice a year NHN has "survival supply events". Winter survival effort during temperatures below 40 degrees and extreme cold. Plus, "cold & flu" kits during "Cold & Flu" season (Dec. to Mar.) in addition to motels stays for those w/chronic-severe illnesses/families w/schoolchildren-infants. Then, we usually, organize a "It's Hot & Getting Hotter" effort to distribute hydration supplies/facts/motel stays for rest bits periodically through out the summer. But the supplies we provide to those folks on our rosters would be inadequate for a sudden or prolonged disaster. If you would like to be part of the solution to help us acquire or buy an adequate amount of extra food & survival supplies to store for emergencies, please contact us. Email, or call 650-283-0288. It's important for NHN to know who our un-housed & housed 'at risk' neighbors are, not only to help them with programs & services pre-disaster but to determine numbers and budgets for acquiring extra 'food & survival supplies'. [Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm

One of the biggest problems would be if something major happened at one of our schools and getting the word out to parents.

We have no text alert system at Paly and I doubt if any of the others have anything similar. Yes we can be reached by email, but many people do not read their emails until the end of the day, etc. Most people check a text as soon as they receive it. We need better methods of getting news out to parents and students in the case of an emergency.

If there was something bad happening at school at say 7.00 am, there is no way that the school could prevent students turning up. A text alert to parents and students could prevent a small problem becoming a major tragedy.

We also need better traffic alerts around town. If there is a major traffic accident on say Oregon, or ECR, it doesn't make sense for us to be proactive in looking for it (as for instance if we were about to use highway 101). Instead text alerts for major traffic holdups and other major issues should be something we can sign up for. This is not for pancake breakfasts, but major problems that affect everybody in Palo Alto. The present CANS system is never used properly and is not used for traffic tie ups.

1 person likes this
Posted by Whiners & Carmudgeons
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 1:02 pm

[Portion removed.]

Democracy is a participatory form of government. If you don't like what is going on, there are many ways to get involved in the process to make sure that better solutions move forward through the process to Council.

Be part of the solution. Quitcherbitchin and roll your sleeves up.

However, that would require LEARNING the process and making a commitment. We get the government we create.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Whiners & Carmudgeons,

"that would require LEARNING the process and making a commitment. We get the government we create."

This sounds straight from City Hall.

"Learning" the process that is mired with obstacles to learning anything - see the lack of transparency issues and mea culpas from PACC.

"Commitment" to then be shoved away as a complainer?

And until the "learning" and "commitment" windows are defogged in Palo Alto city government, I look forward to participating in voting every single incumbent out of office.

Until then, it's OK to complain.

Question: Who will be saved first in a disaster?

The packs of workers packed like sardines downtown?

Has anyone started counting yet? Planning for the right number of people to evacuate or alert would be a start.

Don't forget the basements.

1 person likes this
Posted by me
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 10, 2014 at 1:33 pm

I'm actually quite happy to know that someone is evaluating problems that could occur in Palo Alto. If they didn't who would be the first to complain that the city wasn't prepared... all of you complaining they're thinking ahead!

Don't you prepare for problems in your life ahead? Financially, medically etc...seems right that our emergency services should do the same thing.

Thank you city, for being diligent and looking into issues that may/may not occur.

2 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm

The people who typically complain about tax dollars spent on disaster preparedness are usually the people who -- after a disaster occurs -- say that the City should have been better prepared.

Also, as "me" from Charleston Gardens notes, they often expect the government to focus on them afterwards whether they are actual victims or not.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 3:29 pm

To those complaining about the people who complain,

Asking how much is spent on a report, or questioning a process is a good thing. It's not that planning for a disaster is bad, it's who is planning and how.

The City has not exactly excelled at planning, and why would this planning be "new"?

Maybe through the new planning for a disaster, it will occur to the city how way over their heads with the over-development.

I would suggest a moratorium on all building until there is an acceptable plan.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2014 at 4:18 pm

[Portion removed.]

This is just another-topic-another-day. It's terribly predictable, and really kind of sad.

The day after the next City election, you'll have some new victims. Of course, your regulars -- the city employees you absolutely love to hate -- will continue to be your mainstay.

Like this comment
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2014 at 8:40 pm

> How much did we pay for this report that brilliantly recommended installing virus protection and firewalls?

Today’s Post (9/10) says the report cost $72,864 (not > $75,000), paid to Dewberry Consultants.

I guess there’s no one on staff who could have figured out these obvious problems, but then nothing ever happens at city hall without an expensive consultant.

2 people like this
Posted by Lee Thé
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 10, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Lee Thé is a registered user.

Apparently the city-commissioned report on top threats to Palo didn’t mention why the city’s many older soft-story buildings are at such risk for collapse in an inevitable future earthquake: Palo Alto has inadvertently blocked homeowner’s associations from doing the needed seismic retrofits.

This isn’t because the city requires our planned communities (i.e. condo/townhouse complexes) to hand over 15% of the units to the city’s low-income housing program (they’re called Below Market Rate units, or BMRs). It’s because the city does nothing to help these low-income unit owners pay for the special assessments required for seismic retrofits.

Naturally, when faced with a $10,000 hit they can’t afford, they not only vote against such assessments–they campaign passionately against them. This is enough to defeat such assessments–and leave Palo Alto’s older planned communities in danger of death and destruction from earthquakes, right in the middle of earthquake country.

Palo Alto needs to follow the lead of other Bay Area cities and mandate seismic retrofits for soft story buildings built before 1990 (those built over garages). It also needs to avoid putting its BMR owners in an impossible position. So the city should pay for those units’ retrofits, to be reimbursed whenever those units are sold, out of their appreciation.

And remember, even if you don’t live in one of these endangered buildings, their collapse will tie up firefighters and other emergency resources that you may need yourself when the Big One hits.

Note that the city council commissioned a study on soft story buildings in Palo Alto and the danger of them collapsing in earthquakes roughly a decade ago.

They did exactly nothing in response to that report.

1 person likes this
Posted by Eejits in Power
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2014 at 11:43 am

Flood prevention is completely do-able, but has yet to be done. Scary, with 100-year floods now occurring every twenty years. The last such flood was 16 years or more ago.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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