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Planning for disaster is serious business

SHERRY MAYS

It is 2 a.m. and the earth lets loose with a crushing bang after 20 seconds of relentless shifting. After hours of distress the dogs go silent, while car alarms howl.

Broken glass lines the kitchen floor after glasses on the counter lost balance and fell. Photos in frames line the hallway floor just beneath where a minute earlier they hung.

There’s been an earthquake, a large one at that. What is the game plan?

Planning for disasters is not a game. It is an ongoing struggle with hypothetical situations, lumped with strategies, mutual aid plans, telephone trees and a large group of people who hope they have covered all the bases in the event disaster strikes.

Last month, Christine Rourke, a Tahoe Forest Hospital intensive care nurse, participated in the Integrated Emergency Management Course in Earthquakes sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Emmitsburg, M.D., just outside of Washington, D.C.

“This was an experience I will never forget,” Rourke said. “I learned so much. It was a real wake-up call for me and the others who participated.”

While Rourke was being trained to “exhaustion,” Truckee rumbled with the 5.3 magnitude earthquake that quickly surpassed the weather in check-out line discussion.

“As we were sitting in class, one of the instructors gave me the news,” she said. “It was too coincidental.”

From dawn to 11 p.m., the class participants digested the “model community” book that outlined what thorough planning consisted of and by mid-week, Rourke and the other 48 students began a response exercise that simulated a real-life earthquake disaster.

The exercise changed Rourke’s life.

“I’m now aware of how vulnerable Truckee and the Tahoe area are,” she said. “We are a disaster-prone area. Truckee is remote and is dependent upon its lifeline roads. If they are blocked or destroyed, it could be a long time before anyone gets out of here. If it’s in winter it could be longer.

“At 6.0 things begin to break and that could mean our dams.”

Rourke’s focus is on the Tahoe City dam that controls the flow of the Truckee River. She said the January Flood in 1997 brought a heightened sense of awareness to the river, but she is quick to remind Truckee residents and the homeowners along the river that it was a controlled flood.

“If the dam broke, the top 10 feet of Lake Tahoe would have no other place to go except down the 89 corridor, through Truckee and into Reno,” she said. “I don’t think it (the flow of water) would be too exact when navigating the river. It would pick a straight course.”

Rourke said because “things run downhill,” area residents and businesses should be concerned about Reno in the event an earthquake forces contaminants into the water.

“If we poison the drinking water for more than 250,000 residents in Reno, there’s going to be a problem. That’s why I can’t understand some of our building practices along the river. We are inviting river contamination.”

Not very different from the lists of mutual aid providers, available equipment, emergency resources and shelters being organized within the Town of Truckee in cooperation with its districts, the FEMA preparedness list forced class participants to look at the “big picture,” by involving towns that aren’t disaster prone.

“We are in a seismically active area,” she said. “All along the Sierra and Cascades, towns are volcanically active. To the west, towns are flood-prone. So who really has the disaster-free town?”

Representatives from disaster-free towns also participated in the class with Rourke. She said she asked the instructors why they were participating, and they asked her who she was going to need to turn to during a wide-spread disaster scenario. It was then that she realized why Truckee needed to think locally, but look globally for solutions.

“Boy did that hit home,” she said. “I realized that it would take more than the neighboring towns working together to mitigate an incident. It would take much more than that.”

During last week’s Town of Truckee Emergency Preparedness Meeting that included representatives from the town’s special districts, bi-county offices of emergency services, law enforcement, local press and Red Cross, “what ifs” were the topic of discussion.

“We’re in the national news at least once a year for some event or another,” said Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger. “Something is going to happen because of our location and remoteness. We need to be prepared with mutual agreements, equipment lists with EOCs (emergency operation centers) in place.”

The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office is diligently preparing an available equipment list, while it continually updates response notification lists.

“Just making sure we are always up to date is a task,” said NCSO Supervisor Chaun Gass. “We need to know who to contact specifically. Who is prepared? Who is trained to handle a disaster plan?”

Disasters are more widespread now because of growing populations. Where wildland fires were once left to burn, highly-populated subdivisions are faced with defensible space measures. Where the Truckee River once flowed freely, homes sit only feet from its mid-flow banks.

Earthquakes, floods and fires now get disaster rating because of the homes they destroy and the people they displace, and as fire officials have said and Rourke has now discovered, it is up to the entire community to strive toward becoming disaster resistant.

Scientists mapping Lake Tahoe’s bottom already discovered evidence of large prehistoric quakes, according to University of Nevada, Reno, geologists. Quakes, that today could cause major damage to homes, businesses, lines of transportation, communication and gas lines. In the winter, the interruption in gas or electric service could kill thousands of people, especially during a peak weekend with thousands of visitors in the area.

Businesses interrupted by disasters could go under permanently. FEMA’s report to the class offered statistics proving that the longer doors to a business are closed, the less likely it is they will ever reopen.

“For our small business owners, that could spell disaster in itself,” she said.

She added that FEMA overwhelmingly indicated that personal disaster plans were just as important as the large scale regional plans. Individuals could ease the strain on already overcrowded hospitals in the event of a disaster, if they secured their game plan well in advance of an event.

“Everyone needs to prepare themselves with their own plans,” Rourke said. “It is an individual responsibility that could save lives in the event of an earthquake.”

Rourke’s advice includes keeping a “survival kit” similar to a winter driving kit packed in the car at all times. The kit includes blankets, food, water, pet food (if necessary), a change of warm clothing, flashlights, batteries, and most importantly a radio.

“People don’t realize how important radios are,” she said.

Two-way radios are the most helpful, but regular radios can at least inform listeners with evacuation, shelter, road and weather updates.

“People can find out where to turn to and where they can drive,” she said. “Shelter information is also important.”

Although Rourke said that shelters should be a last resort because of the amount of available space, knowing how to get out of the area and being prepared with a survival kit and a pre-planned place to go is a better option.

Terwilliger said the fire district is going to look into the options for its annual smoke detector drive.

“Maybe we need to look into purchasing radios with a single frequency on them, so in the event something does happen, people can get information from our emergency information station,” he said.

Radio and television stations with the ability to broadcast emergency information are being finalized with NCSO. Gass said a list of venues will be available by December.

“Los Angeles is prepared for earthquakes, but doesn’t do daily planning because they are somewhat prepared,” she said. “It is time for Truckee to get serious about earthquakes, because the next one might be that 6.0.”

The Town of Truckee is planning its next full-scale disaster drill Jan. 7.

The town, along with the Truckee Fire Protection District and Tahoe Forest Hospital, recently completed a drill simulating an explosion at the Truckee-Donner Public Utility District building on Donner Pass Road.

“We need more drills like this to keep up our planning,” said Tamara Blanton, who along with drill organizers, facilitated the exercise. “We need more districts involved.”

The hospital district, which conducts disaster planning twice yearly just to maintain its trauma facility standings, is more than serious about earthquake preparedness. As a “lifeline” facility, the hospital already has long-range planning in place to retrofit its main buildings to the highest earthquake standards as mandated by Senate Bill 1953.

“We have known that these upgrades are going to be necessary by the year 2008,” said TFH Public Relations Director Joseph Ferrerra. “It will cost the district close to $12 million to complete the work that needs to be done. The upgrades should be finished by 2002.”

Upgrades include wall reinforcing, upgrading roof construction, equipment bracing, creating seismic jointing in the flooring, and additional second floor reinforcements.

“Our facility master plan is well underway,” Ferrerra said. “We are not only evaluating the facility, but how the quality and systems of care are affected by facility design.”

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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