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Masters of Disaster 

The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services unveils its new post-apocalypse playbook

Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
During the windstorms and deluge of mid-December, felled trees, smashed windows, coursing minifloods, and downed power lines pushed the city toward chaos. In Sea Cliff, a cracked storm drain overwhelmed by runoff produced a rapacious sinkhole. The hole claimed one house and kept expanding, threatening to destroy several more dwellings.

Most city officials were caught off guard by the storm: Meteorologists had predicted none of this. But not so the Mayor's Office of Emergency Services (OES), the city's disaster-preparedness organization. The OES activated its newly minted Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), the city's playbook for how to function during and after a major disaster -- an earthquake, an airliner crash, or a toxic spill, among other mayhem.

On the morning of Dec. 11, in response to a phone call from the ranking police officer at the sinkhole, OES elevated the city to the first state of increased emergency readiness, Response Level 1.

OES staff assembled at the agency's Emergency Command Center (ECC) in the Western Addition and dispatched radio and phone messages to representatives of the city's critical departments -- Fire, Water, Police, Public Works, Public Health, and others -- summoning them to the ECC. The attending police officer at the sinkhole was designated the "Incident Commander" and checked in with the Police Department's own Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Other departments' EOCs were activated, and the Red Cross was notified.

Eventually, the rain and wind subsided; the storm drain in Sea Cliff was plugged, the crushed cars were towed away, and little by little, PG&E got homes and businesses back onto the grid.

But how well did the OES's massive new playbook work in the thick of it all?
"I gotta be frank with you. It didn't work as well as I wanted it to," says an OES planner, Carl Hedleston. "I think we had some major breakdowns, and failures in communications. ... I'm still embarrassed to talk about it. It was not well done."

Hedleston's frankness is born from confidence -- confidence that the OES can learn from success and failure. By Dec. 19, just eight days after the sinkhole crisis, Hedleston had assembled players from the responding city agencies for a disaster debriefing, a self-criticism session. The various departments were candid about their shortcomings in deploying the EOP in a hard rain, let alone a violent quake.

It's not that the EOP is an easy playbook to deploy: It contains 940 pages of text, bulleted lists, maps, charts, acronyms, and quasi-military jargon, and was created in relative isolation over the course of three mayoral administrations. But aside from the city charter, the new EOP is San Francisco's most important official document. It authoritatively plots out how the government will function for the crucial first 72 hours following a disaster -- particularly a major earthquake -- when shattered roads, bridges, rail lines, and runways will cut San Francisco off from the rest of the world.

And the Masters of Disaster who wrote the EOP don't assume any piddling 7.1-Richter Loma Prieta quake. Their concern is a repeat of 1906's 8.3 earthquake that killed 700 San Franciscans and burned 4.7 square miles of the city to the ground.

When that quake comes -- as it surely will -- the EOP will split San Francisco into 12 fiefs, each controlled by a fire battalion chief; the Moscone Center will be transformed into a command post; schools will become emergency shelters, Muni an ambulance service; and the city's cable TV station will transmogrify into ... The Recovery Channel.

Battle Stations! Battle Stations!
The Office of Emergency Services was midway through revising the 1987 version of the EOP when the giant catfish that lives beneath Japan -- whose subterranean thrashings are thought to cause earthquakes -- awoke cranky and out of sorts at 5:45 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1995. This namazu's gyrations produced the Great Hanshin, or Kobe, earthquake.

Kobe, another port city built on sediment and sand, was largely destroyed by the 7.2-Richter temblor. Its freeways were toppled, its rail lines bent like spaghetti, its unbraced wood-frame homes collapsed, its water pressure plummeted to zero, all causing more than $150 billion in property damage. But that was just the economic damage: 6,300 people died in the shaking and fires; an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 suffered mechanical and burn injuries.

The quake was only a tad stronger than the Loma Prieta quake, which Carl Hedleston calls a "pop quiz" for a really large event. The death toll was so high because Kobe wasn't prepared. When its infrastructure of freeways, rail lines, and surface roads was destroyed, intracity travel -- and rescue -- came to a halt. Also, Japan's prime minister dithered a critical four hours before ordering the Defense Forces to help. It took up to 21 hours for emergency personnel to arrive in some parts of the city while people suffocated in the rubble.

When the Kobe quake hit, two San Francisco city officials were visiting just 20 miles away in Osaka for -- ironically enough -- a conference on earthquake hazard reduction: Catherine Bauman, a city planner, and Laurence Kornfield, a chief building inspector. Bauman and Kornfield toured Kobe the next day, documenting the destruction with still photos and video.

"It was probably for me one of the most frustrating and emotionally wrenching experiences," Kornfield says. "To feel like a tourist in a situation where I have been trained to respond was an extremely frustrating experience."

Bauman and Kornfield wrote a paper about their Kobe tour, which they distributed to city departments. This led to an invitation from John Bitoff, the retired Navy rear admiral who has helmed the OES since 1992, to give a Kobe debriefing at a breakfast meeting of then-Mayor Frank Jordan and his department heads.

Bauman and Kornfield's show-and-tell convinced the OES that the interdepartmental task force revising the EOP wasn't thinking on a large enough scale, says Hedleston. The agency needed new concepts to deal with a city balkanized by downed freeways and buildings. The authors' insights prompted the OES to adopt a plan of decentralized command in the case of a disaster, with Fire Department battalion chiefs serving as the lead disaster-fighting authorities.

About The Author

Paul D. Kretkowski


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