Editorial: Tragedy is reminder of our vulnerability | February 19, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 19, 2010

Editorial: Tragedy is reminder of our vulnerability

Emergency response to plane crash and power outage shows great improvement over past incidents, but more needs to be done

From East Palo Alto residents knocking on neighbors doors near the site of the plane crash to Palo Alto efforts to keep the public informed in a timely manner, the response to Wednesday morning's tragic plane crash was superb.

But there were serious shortcomings as well.

Hundreds of Palo Alto residents and employees became "Internet refugees" jamming Menlo Park and Mountain View restaurants and coffee-shop Wi-Fi sites. Companies, stores and restaurants shut down or operated on makeshift generator setups.

PG&E crews made what a PG&E spokesman correctly called "Herculean efforts" to restore power to Palo, and came within minutes of meeting its 5:30 p.m. target.

City officials met in the city's Emergency Operations Center and received hourly reports from department heads, including critiques of shortcomings and areas needing improvement.

Schools stayed open but teachers reverted to old-fashioned whiteboards and squeaky pens rather than the now-powerless "smartboards."

News websites, including the Weekly's www.PaloAltoOnline.com site, were jammed with people seeking news about the outage, as was Palo Alto's city website, www.CityofPaloAlto.org. The Weekly resorted to Twitter bulletins about what was going on. East Palo Alto police used the city's new dial-up telephone-alert system to inform residents there about the crash.

Beyond the tragedy of the three Tesla employees who died, the fact that no East Palo Alto residents were killed or injured was in fact miraculous. Federal investigators have begun probing what may have caused or contributed to the crash.

But in Palo Alto attention quickly turned to the future, with a renewed realization that the community is highly vulnerable to emergency situations. And there are many questions.

It is ironic that a community that prides itself in being a world leader in electronic communications and technology suddenly slammed to a virtual halt while communities around it continued life as usual, with the exception of the shock and relief in East Palo Alto.

The power loss also comes just a week before a major community meeting in Palo Alto on "emergency preparedness" planning. It comes at a time when there are serious discussions with the city administration of unifying the police, fire, utilities and public works emergency-response operations — a long-overdue move that should improve past hit-or-miss communications, despite good individual efforts.

The preparation for emergencies at family and neighborhood levels should see a strong surge of interest due to the day-long power failure. Inexpensive telephones that don't require electrical power to ring or work should be a must in every home. Battery-powered lights, laptop computers, devices to recharge cell phones, emergency radios and even generators became hot sales items.

Water and food for at least several days should be a basic element of every home, along with a good First Aid kit.

As in East Palo Alto, neighbors helping neighbors will be the first line of response in a serious emergency or catastrophe, and the "block captain" program of Palo Alto Neighborhoods organization deserves more support and participation.

Yet there are bigger questions that go to the very core of emergency readiness.

Foremost is: "Why is Palo Alto dependent on a single transmission line for its entire power supply?" This extreme vulnerability to a repeat accident or intentional sabotage needs to be addressed as a high priority.

Close behind is a catastrophe-waiting-to-happen: Two key elements of the city's emergency-response system are located in the basement of City Hall: the citywide dispatch center that handles 911 calls and communicates with police, fire, utilities and public works personnel, and the Emergency Operations Center where top city officials and leaders gather during a crisis — as they did Wednesday.

The fact is that the City Hall is considered vulnerable in case of a large earthquake. Had advance strengthening work not been done to the late-1960s building some believe it could have collapsed or suffered serious damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, destroying or disabling both emergency centers. A "portable dispatch center" bus in on order for a June delivery — none too soon.

To allow these dangerous situations to continue as long as they have is irresponsible. That should be high among the "lessons learned" from Palo Alto's powerless Wednesday.


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