Are we ready?
It has happened before, and it will happen again: A relentless winter storm pounds the Sierra with snow and immobilizes residents and infrastructure. Power is out, Interstate 80 is gridlocked with thousands of stranded motorists and stores are sold out.
The Gulf Coast might seem far away from this mountain town, but Truckee is no less immune to the effects of disasters. In the weeks following the shock and awe of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, communities around the nation have been spooned a dose of reality and been forced to look at their own emergency response plans.
In the event of that debilitating blizzard or runaway wildfire, who in Truckee would respond, and how would that response affect residents and visitors?
“We have an emergency action plan in place for Truckee,” said Truckee Town Manager Tony Lashbrook. “We work very closely with Truckee Fire District and other agencies in terms of training for emergency response.
“It is the fire district’s responsibility to protect life and property, while the police department and public works try to keep circulation and infrastructure open.”
Response ” and pre-planning ” on the local level is critical, said Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger.
“When we know a large storm is coming, we will gather to decide if the problem can be handled on a local level, or if county emergency services need to be contacted,” Terwilliger said. “We also do disaster drills so that we can self-contain and sustain without outside help.
“We are 40 minutes from a major urban city, but one rock slide and we’re a million miles away.”
According to Terwilliger, the most likely disasters that would strike Truckee are major snow storms and hazardous material spills.
Forest fires, he said, do not pose the great threat that many people imagine because they burn slowly and allow time for resident evacuation and emergency response.
To prepare for such emergencies, town officials ” often in conjunction with members of county, state and federal emergency response teams ” stage response exercises. Lashbrook said these exercises have dealt with such issues as forest fires, extreme snow storms, building collapse, and hazardous material spills.
Rich Reader, emergency services director for Nevada County, said response from the county would not come until Truckee’s resources were overwhelmed, and additional aid was requested.
“Truckee would make requests, for buses, or helicopters, or whatever, and the county would provide those resources or marshall them from the state level,” Reader said. “The county can commander resources from private sector, can get them from the military, or from existing state resources such as regional transit.”
As far as Truckee is concerned, Rui Cunha, program manager for Placer County’s Office of Emergency Services, said he hasn’t seen to many weaknesses.
“The town has an extremely well-managed fire department and is very proactive in planning and preparing for various instances and disasters,” he said.
In the event of an emergency Cunha said residents can anticipate that they will get some word as to where to go, but there are periods of time where the area may be “cut off from the rest of the world ” that is a fact,” he said.
“Individuals need to be prepared and able to sustain themselves for 72 hours,” Cunha said.
If evacuations are necessary the town has pre-planned route options and sheltering plans in place. But according to Terwilliger, it is much more likely, especially in the event of a snow storm, that people will be asked, if not required, to stay in place.
“You have to be accountable for taking care of yourself,” Terwilliger said. “People drive up to their weekend homes all the time with nothing, and assume that if something happens, everything will be taken care of for them.
“In the ’92-’93 snowstorm, Skislope Way wasn’t plowed for seven days, and the grocery stores ran out of food,” he said.
The Red Cross recommends enough water and canned goods to last for seven days, an alternative source of heat, a battery operated AM radio, flashlights, batteries, candles, and other basic life support items. Those items should be kept in a large container that can be loaded into a vehicle if needed.
“I cannot understate the point about individual preparedness,” Cunha said. “We are watching a disaster (Katrina) where individuals and cities may have not been prepared. People were without a stock of goods to sustain them and a number of people suffered more that they potentially should have.”
Terwilliger also recommended having a stash of emergency items already in a vehicle, along with blankets and ice scrapers.
“Caltrans is prepared for 97 percent of storms,” he said. “But what about those other 3 [percent]. You could be stuck for quite a while. This is a violent environment and people need to be prepared.”
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