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Spectrum - Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Guest Opinion: The urgent need to 'build resilient communities'
by Peter Carpenter

Our current disaster-preparedness system is built on the basis of mutual aid. When one community has an extraordinary event then mutual aid is the perfect solution because it allows nearby communities to contribute resources.

But when there is an areawide, nationwide or worldwide disaster (a "Pandisaster" like human transmissible avian flu or a 7+ earthquake) mutual aid will no longer be a viable solution — there will be no available resources from neighboring communities. We must therefore develop truly Resilient Communities — communities that have planned, prepared and tested the capacity to help themselves in the event of a Pandisaster. Designing and implementing a Resilient Community will not be easy. It will require 'civilianizing' our current disaster-preparedness-and-response model — our current emergency responders must become teachers rather than doers. We must build resilience into each neighborhood and every family.

This will require a community ethic of individual preparedness rather than the current 911 mentality. It will require mobilizing schools, business, social groups, service organizations and churches in totally new ways. And it will require periodic testing.

Resilient communities would have trained-citizen coverage in every neighborhood, business area and school. Each of those CERTs will need to have greatly expanded medical training. If we have an avian flu pandemic there will be virtually no medical facilities with capacity to treat most victims and nowhere to send non-flu emergency cases. Citizens will need to be trained to perform triage, provide extended and extensive primary medical care — and to perform a mortuary function. Even within families we need to build capacity to diagnose and treat many of the patients, flu or otherwise. And we need to develop neighborhood and family measures that could imperde the spread of an epidemic.

Families will need to take care of most of their emergency needs without relying on normal emergency services. We will need to have prepositioned emergency supplies in every neighborhood — and each family will need to create its own multi-week supply of emergency food, water and supplies.
Given the unusually large numbers of elderly and infirm citizens, the many citizens who lack personal transportation and the numerous pets in our communities, we need to develop realistic shelter-in-place or evacuation plans for these at-risk populations — down to the levels of individual homes and their assignment to specific organizations.

The recent disasters should have taught us that good communications are essential and that reliance on bigger, better, more expensive technology is very risky. Not only do high-tech systems frequently fail to perform in disasters but also our expectation that they will work has often left us without alternatives when we most need solid, reliable communications. We need to develop a reliable non-electronic emergency-communications system that relies on neither electricity nor the Internet — some type of low-tech messaging system using runners and bulletin boards (possibly enlisting trained Scouts/Explorers, student athletes and others).

The Palo Alto Airport represents a unique disaster-response asset. It could serve as a triage site, a transportation base and a command site. Working with the 21 other general aviation airports in the Bay Area, we could create a highly redundant emergency transportation and communication network. Planes based there could do aerial damage assessment and serve as aerial radio-relay stations.

Our ability to provide a range of post-disaster services could be greatly enhanced if all new (and many existing) public, educational and large business buildings, and theaters and conference centers, were required to incorporate specific disaster-support elements such as emergency generators and water supplies.

It is a certainty that the Bay Area will have a major earthquake sometime in the next few decades, with significant property loss and substantial damage. The long delays in making transportation-related repairs or relocations after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and in deciding how to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are preventable. Rebuilding quickly will be essential, but to do that we need a Disaster Recovery Planning and Project Approval Ordinance that is designed to dramatically streamline rebuilding while actually improving the outcome.

The key question is: Are we all prepared to undertake this challenging effort or will we simply continue to expect "someone else" to take care of us when disaster strikes — especially when "someone else" will not be there when a Pandisaster occurs? n

Peter Carpenter is a director of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, chairman of the Joint Community Relations Committee for the Palo Alto Airport and is a former Palo Alto Planning Commission member (1973 to 1977). He can be e-mailed at Petercarp@aol.com.

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