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Waiting for the next big one: Bay Area cities participate in emergency shelter exercises

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Part of Urban Shield’s disaster drills

City building inspectors are stymied when they can’t get into the electric utility closet during a mock safety inspection.
Photos by Daphne White

“We can’t get into the electrical components room—it’s locked and we don’t have a key!”

It’s three days after a major earthquake in Berkeley, and building engineers are attempting to inspect a city facility before certifying it safe for use as a shelter. In a real emergency, this would have been a serious problem, causing a delay in opening the shelter. Fortunately, this was an emergency shelter drill run by the city of Berkeley, which took place August 30. As a result of this dry run, city officials will install lockboxes that the city’s building inspectors will have access to in emergencies.

“This is the most complex simulation we have ever done,” said Keith May, Berkeley’s assistant fire chief. “We have never done an emergency shelter drill that included building inspectors before. We now realize that we need to install secure lock boxes that will include tools and building plans at every potential shelter site, so that inspectors can have immediate access without having to wait for the fire department.”

Two Berkeley city employees open a cot during an emergency shelter drill.

For logistical reasons, Berkeley held its shelter exercise last week. But this weekend, thousands of city employees and first responders from all over the Bay Area will take part in similar drills focusing on mass care and shelters after a disaster as part of the annual Urban Shield Yellow Command exercises.

“As we have seen time and time again during regional emergencies, the need for a coordinated response between state and local government and care and shelter partners cannot be left to chance,” said Paul Hess, emergency services supervisor for the Alameda County Sheriff’s office.

Other Bay Area shelter exercises will take place in Oakland, San Francisco, Fremont, Dublin, and Livermore. Santa Clara and Sonoma counties will also be participating in the event.

On Saturday, September 8, a free preparedness fair in Castro Valley will feature training in how to create a simple personal safety kit, camp out at home, and stop bleeding after an injury. The fair will include exhibits and representatives from several emergency preparedness and volunteer groups including the Red Cross; the California Rescue Dog Association, HAM radio operators, and Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters.

There will also be family preparedness information, supplies for purchase, and food trucks. But the highlight will probably be Big Shaker, a van featuring the largest earthquake simulator in the world: It can simulate an earthquake up to 8.0 magnitude.

According to the Bay Area Earthquake Plan, more than 23,000 San Franciscans may be displaced in the aftermath of a magnitude 7.9 earthquake along the San Andreas Fault. San Francisco’s mass care and shelter plan has pre-identified more than 100 facilities that can shelter up to 60,000 residents. San Francisco disaster shelters may be set up in schools, community centers, convention centers or churches that are temporarily converted to provide safe, accessible and secure short-term housing for disaster survivors.

While police participation in Urban Shield’s “Red Command” exercises has been controversial, the “Yellow Command” emergency services drills have not raised similar issues. In fact, Berkeley relied on significant community volunteer support to run the event. About 30 Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers showed up August 30 to serve as shelter clients. They went through the registration process and helped uncover potential flaws in the system.

“We realized, for example, that we don’t have a coordinated way to identify translators in an emergency,” said May. “We do have city employees who speak a variety of languages, but we didn’t anticipate having to locate them while running a shelter.”

One of the volunteer community members requested a Mandarin speaker to help her register, and the event organizers were at a loss. Lesson learned.

Inspector checks building plans for possible problem areas after an earthquake.

The exercise brought together city employees from different departments such as the fire department, parks and recreation, aging services, health services, and building inspections, just to name a few. Berkeley also invited three nonprofit agencies that work with the disabled community to participate, in order to better understand and anticipate the needs of their clients. Several volunteers arrived in wheelchairs, with at least one being visually impaired. All were registered and assigned ADA cots, and staff took note of their needs as the day went on.

“The number one thing that comes up in these drills is that we have to practice our communications,” said Jennifer Lazo, Berkeley’s emergency services coordinator. “I would much rather practice it in drills than in a real emergency.”

Lazo spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer working with the Red Cross. She responded to fires in Los Angeles, disasters in Alabama, and the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. Since Lazo has seen shelters operate during actual disasters, her simulations are realistic and informed by actual experiences.

Community volunteers registering outside the shelter site.

“I want to make sure that what we are asking Berkeley folks to do really works,” she said.

While the Red Cross was not involved in this exercise, it would be a partner when actual shelters open. According to California law, local governments are responsible for operating shelters, so they have to be prepared to open and operate shelters until the Red Cross can arrive.

Berkeley has 12 city-owned facilities that can transform into shelters, but the decision as to which ones will open will depend on the emergency—as well as the state of the—after that emergency. All of the shelters will be located in the flat area of the city; Berkeley does not own large buildings in the hills. The city has roughly 117,000 residents, but not all residents would need shelter after any one emergency.

“In general, about 10 percent of people who are displaced need a disaster shelter,” said Lazo.

City employee measures space between cots, following Red Cross guidelines

Cities expect most of their residents to take shelter in public parks or their own backyards after an earthquake. When possible, many residents tend to leave town to shelter with friends and relatives in other areas.

“Shelters are never going to be the most comfortable options,” said Lazo. “We will do what we can to make it as comfortable as possible, but it’s going to be really basic, especially at first, and especially for a disaster event that impacts the whole region.”

In this exercise, only cots were made available: there were no sheets, pillows, or blankets. Blankets would be provided in a real emergency, but when possible residents are advised to bring sleeping bags, pillows, medications, toiletries, and other necessities with them.

Shelter is divided between space for families, single men and single women.

“We encourage anything that will make people feel more comfortable,” noted Lazo. “Shelters are the last place most people want to go.”

In Berkeley, all shelters are going to accommodate pets. Some smaller dogs may be allowed in the shelter itself, and larger animals will be kept outside.

“We partner with the Berkeley Humane Society and we work with animal services,” she said. “We will set up a pet area so people can safely keep their pets with them.”

The exact arrangements will depend on the location.

During an emergency, some people may want to come to shelters to recharge their cell phones or get a hot meal—not everyone will need to spend the night. If the power is out, generators will be brought to the shelters and local providers such as AT&T and Verizon may bring trucks to provide internet service.

All Berkeley shelters will allow owners to bring pets with them. A volunteer checks out a cot, with his small dog.

Before the next emergency strikes, residents are urged to sign up for emergency alert services such as AC Alert in Alameda County, or Alert SF in San Francisco. These services will have updates regarding which shelters are open, as well as other emergency information.

More information about Berkeley earthquake preparedness is here and information on wildfire evacuation is here.