San Francisco Readies for the Big One, a Block at a Time
19 Nov 2014
Source: The Wall Street Journal
By: JIM CARLTON
SAN FRANCISCO—If a devastating earthquake were to hit this city, local officials hope to deploy a new weapon: residents trained as emergency response teams to help neighborhoods fend for themselves until water and other services are restored.
“We need to be ready to go the distance, like five days,” said Daniel Homsey, director of the city’s Neighborhood Resilience program, which so far has organized volunteer teams in three communities.
This effort and other, less-formal ones across the nation come in response to severe natural disasters in recent years, which public-safety coordinators say have highlighted the inability of government agencies to respond immediately in certain situations. As a result, more Americans are being told they will have to rely on their own means to survive in the first hours or days following a catastrophe.
In San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, for instance, resilience coordinators have handed out door hangers that residents can put out signaling whether they need help after a disaster, and are talking to local ham radio operators for help in emergency communications. “My feeling is the fewer people have to call 911, the better,” said Anietie Ekanem, a 41-year-old social-media consultant and neighborhood leader.
San Francisco is among 10 U.S. cities that have signed onto a program called 100 Resilient Cities started last year by the Rockefeller Foundation. Other American cities include New York, Los Angeles and Boulder, Colo., while international cities include Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Melbourne, Australia.
Michael Berkowitz, a managing director for the foundation, said the program was created after emergency-response officials began noticing close-knit neighborhoods in places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and New Jersey after superstorm Sandy rebounded faster from the disasters than the ones where neighbors didn’t know one another.
The resilient neighborhoods basically work out emergency-response plans such as having food and water cached at a community center in case of disaster, rather than wait for outside help. They are also better positioned to work with local government to rebuild, Mr. Homsey said.
“It’s not just about the response of government, but also neighborhoods being more cohesive,” said Mr. Berkowitz, former deputy commissioner of emergency management in New York.
The resiliency trend is being manifested in other ways.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, said it would award $1 billion to communities that have been hit by natural disasters from 2011 to 2013. A total of 67 state, local and U.S. territorial agencies hit by the disasters are eligible for grants tied to their proposals for recovery, such as revising building codes so a community is better prepared for the next calamity.
“This is the future of planning practice, really,” said James Brasuell, managing editor of an urban-planning blog called Planitzen. “We’re only seeing the beginning of that trend, I would say.”
The resilient cities face different challenges. Boulder has a large population of college students who may not realize the city lies in a flash-flood area, said Greg Guibert, who recently was appointed the city’s chief resiliency officer, a position being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
“Let’s be honest: Young people are not necessarily the most responsive to being ready for emergencies,” Mr. Guibert said.
Even in more established neighborhoods, resiliency plans don’t always work as envisioned.
When a magnitude 6.0 quake rocked her out of bed in San Francisco on Aug. 24, Jeanette Oliver wanted to alert a new resiliency team she had joined—but didn’t know whom to call.
“I didn’t know who was in town, who to deploy,” said Ms. Oliver, a shopping-center manager in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood, in a meeting of a group there afterward. “I really felt we missed the boat.” The quake struck 60 miles to the north in Napa, Calif., so caused little damage in San Francisco. Her group resolved to put together an emergency contact list, after the quake left the city with little damage.
San Francisco’s current resiliency initiative began in 2007, when Mayor Ed Lee, then the city administrator, saw how better-organized New Orleans neighborhoods had recovered faster after Katrina. Mr. Homsey went on to begin deploying citywide readiness plans in three initial neighborhoods, where residents help craft their own postdisaster plans, as well as ways to mitigate the impact.
“We want to hear your craziest, kookiest ideas,” Mr. Homsey said at a September meeting of a Miraloma Park neighborhood group in a church basement.
While the Miraloma plans are being finalized, neighborhood leader Robert Gee said ideas have included everything from stockpiling communal food and water to holding more block parties for people to get acquainted.
“The big overarching thing is, How do you get to know your neighbors, so you can do things like plan ahead to help the most vulnerable seniors?” said Mr. Gee, 53, president of the Miraloma Park Improvement Club and a federal agency manager.
Taking stock of the Miraloma proceedings was Randy Brawley, a preparedness analyst and planning officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mr. Brawley, who is based in Oakland, said such community response can only help emergency agencies such as FEMA. “The bottom line,” Mr. Brawley said, “is it takes a finite amount of time [for government agencies] to reach citizens when responding and recovering from a disaster.”