Can we, in Truckee, learn from Katrina?
Can we in the Truckee-Tahoe region learn something from the recent disaster in the gulf? I mean, we watched the tsunami unfold, but come on, that is a third world region. We would never have those kinds of problems, right? We have a lot to learn from this storm, but one thing rings true and that is we are not as good as we think.We all see the results of this hurricane and react differently based on our experiences. As a firefighter who is responsible to protect life and stabilize situations, I can’t help but look at this event in this clinical fashion. Perhaps I can pass on to you who choose to read this some information that will help you understand what is going on out there and what we can take back from the disaster as it unfolds. Although the problem is complex it can be broke down as follows.Pre-evacuationsAs the storm developed in the gulf, the areas that were in peril started evacuation notifications. The process there is the same as here if we have a large wildfire approaching. Seems simple enough on paper. The problem starts when you start notifying folks that they must go. My experience with wildfires and floods is a large percentage of people won’t leave – they flat refuse regardless of the danger coming – or simply can’t. This gets us to the area of misunderstanding. Most of you would say that we should arrest them or take them out. The problem is it takes two police officers to arrest a person in this fashion and another hour of their time to transport them. Remember, once you arrest a person or take them in your care, you must care for them until they are in a safe location. In an area as large as the gulf coast, you would never get anyone out.The best you can do is try to educate them on the danger of the decision quickly and move on to try and help those who do not want to become part of the problem. When you are asked to leave and refuse, you then become part of the problem because we will have to rescue you when we should be helping those who really need it.Lesson learned: When asked to leave an area due to some disaster, just go.RescueThe gulf area is now an ongoing rescue. There are hundreds of square miles inundated with water and thousands of people are in danger or dying. How come they are being left so long before being rescued?Well, right now the means of evacuation is primarily helicopters because the water and damage precludes vehicle traffic. Helicopters are very useful but limited in their use. It is a real-time issue that is being misunderstood. For example, on wildfires if I am going to load a 20-person crew in a helicopter and fly them five miles to a drop off point, I will plan on one hour to move the crew. Helicopters have lifting limitations and can only carry so many folks. They must load correctly, unload correctly and it must be done safely. When you see a helicopter pick someone off a roof on television that has taken about 10-15 minutes per person. Well, get more helicopters. Through trial and error, we can only fly so many helicopters safely in a specific area or the helicopter rescue will become part of the problem. That, coupled with flight restrictions, the amount of time a pilot can fly and fuel needs, helicopter evacuations are extremely exciting to watch but extremely slow.We have a saying in the fire business: “If you live by the rotor, you die by the rotor.” What this means is try to find another way to move people than helicopters. It is sort of like ladders being used to rescue people from burning buildings. That means folks are dying because they are not getting out the normal way: stairs.Rescue vs. supportThere is growing frustration with those who have been moved from their homes to the Dome or other dry locations. There is no support. You might ask why they moved them there in the first place. This goes back to the helicopter real-time issue. It is relatively near the flood so the ships spend more time plucking than ferrying, and it is bad but better than on a roof. Once again there is a lack of understanding on how difficult it is to get logistical support to people. If I am running a large wildfire and have a need to develop a base camp somewhere remote on the fire to support 200 firefighters, I will not allow it to be staffed until at least 48 hours after we decided to do it. The reason is it takes so much time to move the support for 200 people to a location so they can receive adequate food, water, communications and hygiene. Why does it take so long you ask? Well, it takes resources to move the equipment and that means you have to use the resources actively fighting fire or get more to do the job. This gets me back to those who would not or could not leave. The folks running these operations have choices to make. Do we use equipment to rescue people in danger or do we use resources to get food and water to those already out of their homes? With all the hospitals that need evacuation and those in dire need, there simply is not enough room to operate the equipment needed to move them all. Once again, I say, if you are asked to leave, leave because there are so many who can’t.Personal accountabilityIf you were wondering how I could equate the disaster in the gulf to Truckee, this is where it starts.I have harped on you over the years in this forum to take some accountability for your own safety. If this hurricane does not drive it home, nothing will. We are only one major winter storm from being in the same smaller boat only colder. There is an expectation that the government will bail us out no matter how dumb we act. That is simply not true. You must be prepared to take care of yourself for at least three days, one week is better. Have water on hand, extra food, and a means of heating without gas, liquefied petroleum gas, or electricity. Have clothes made for the environment. Have a five-gallon bucket with durable trash bags for a toilet, and understand how to live in this environment.We have developed a whole generation or three of people who simply do not know how to take care of themselves in dire situations, and the footage I see on television is a graphic illustration. I am afraid ignorance has killed many people in the gulf now and many more will die before it is over.As I read the reports, there is finger pointing going on all over the place. Here are my questions: How come the cities, local counties or parishes and the individual states were not prepared to deal with this event for the first three to five days? Although the federal government controls the big checkbook, it will never be able to respond in an immediate need fashion as we can at the local level.Michael S. Terwilliger is chief of the Truckee Fire Protection District.
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