Guest Opinion: It can happen. It will happen. Right here. | February 5, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 5, 2010

Guest Opinion: It can happen. It will happen. Right here.

by Annette Glanckopf

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:, and

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

* 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 ; (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


Posted by Sheri Furman, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2010 at 6:20 pm

The Palo Alto Neighborhoods Emergency Preparedness website provides information on preparing not just for earthquakes, but also for flood, fire and pandemic flu. And you may not be at home when an emergency strikes, so be sure you carry supplies in your car as well. Get to know your neighbors, who would be most in need to help—those with limited mobility or English skills--and how your block can share resources.

Find out more about:
• Block Preparedness Coordinator Program
• Palo Alto Emergency Contact Information
• What to Do BEFORE Disaster Strikes, including preparing for an earthquake,
• Food and Water in an Emergency
• Printable brochures on “Emergency Preparation Supplies for Your Home” and “Preparing Kits for Emergencies While Away from Home”
• Links to sites to buy emergency supplies

Posted by Ron, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 5, 2010 at 11:00 pm

I might add that you can learn what to do in case of emergencies is to taka a series of Palo Alto Natural Disaster Activities (PANDA) classes in which you will learn what to do when a disaster occurs.
along with above mentioned things, you will be taught how to do search and rescue, how to treat minor medical problems like broken limbs or how to treat a nasty cut or abrasion. What would you do when the electricity goes out or when you smell natural gas? You will also be taught Incident Command which deals in organizing fellow PANDAs at various sites. You will be taught how to extinguish a small fire and how to safely extract a trapped person using cribbing. Classes start Febuary 17 for both morning and evening classes. The course is for 5 Wednesdays and one all day Saturday session. At the OES office is Paul 650 617 3197 and he can answer any questions.

Posted by Barry Raleigh, a resident of Woodside
on Feb 6, 2010 at 11:22 am

The San Fernando earthquake of 1971 collapsed an outdoor parking structure onto the ambulances parked underneath. It was one of those "Why didn't we think of that?" moments.
Emergency vehicles need to be parked out of doors or at least in a secure structure. Most above ground garages are susceptible to failure unless they are designed to be seismically sound.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Let's take it further down the future. The Stanford Hospital retrofit has still not been approved by the city council, despite 10 years of effort by Stanford (the council is concerned about traffic, mitigation, housing and are not satisfied with the amount of money Stanford is offering--former council members are agitating for more concessions by Stanford and the plaintive whine of "too much traffic" is constantly heard. The council as in the past, is afraid to make a decision, so they have hired more outside consultants and appointed a 5th ad hoc committee to study the matter). The earthquake strikes--the Stanford Hospital and the Childrens hospital are almost destroyed by the collapse of the buildings--hundred of patients, doctors, nurses and support personnel are crushed by the debris. Meanwhile with the destruction of the Stanford Hospital there is nowhere nearby to take injured residents of the surrounding areas--hundreds die due to lack of treatment.

But even in the worst of times a former council member is concerned that all the emergency vehicles in the city are causing too much traffic--some things never change.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2010 at 8:54 am

On the positive side, there was an article in the Mercury news about permit fees for earthquake retrofits - PA does NOT charge a permit fee! Unlike most neighboring towns, we encourage people to make their homes safer, we don't make it harder and more expensive.

Web Link

Posted by Wonder'n Woman, a resident of University South
on Feb 7, 2010 at 8:29 pm

The city has been wringing its hands over the EOC's vulnerability for decades. May one ask why it has not been moved to a safer location?

Posted by I agree, a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Its only a matter of time before such an emergency strikes. I'm suprised that Palo Alto residents aren't up in the arms about the fact police cars will be trapped underground and their 911 center will be off-line if a big earthquake hits. I'm sure it's expensive but I would assume you really want those resoures to be available if the big one hits.

Posted by Wonder'n Woman, a resident of University South
on Feb 10, 2010 at 3:53 pm

"I would assume you really want those resoures to be available if the big one hits."

There's an easy, inexpensive solution: quarter everything vital at the Municipal Services Center, the flat building where where they keep the heavy city equipment. They could quickly make make a temporary emergency road across 101 if the overpasses go down.

However, I've reluctantly come to suspect that city staff would rather hold out for a sparkling new "public safety" building than attend to the public safety with a solution that would weaken their case for a grand new building.

Posted by George Browning, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 13, 2010 at 8:45 pm

There's no guarantee that emergency vehicles would be any more available at the Municipal Service Center, MSC, than anywhere else in PA. There are too many variables such as:

Lack of personnel to drive the trucks and patrol cars - more than 85% of city employees live in other cities, some as far away as Tracy.

Most streets might be impassable or nearly so because of downed power lines, fires, and broken water mains.

A definite shortage of medical personnel of all kinds.

The wisest thing a person can do is take the PANDA course or the PAN Emergency Preparedness program. The more than 60,000 residents must be self-sufficient for many days as the few hundred trained personnel do the triage work.

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