Masters of Disaster

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

"I got this very dismissing letter back from Bitoff saying ... he didn't think the damage was that much," says Ammiano. "Second of all he didn't think we would qualify, and thirdly, he had spoken to people in Napa ... and [they said] when you start applying for funds, that can hurt tourism. ... It would keep people from coming to the city 'cause they'd think there was a disaster."

"Well, lo and behold, the next month, out of Jordan's office comes this thing requesting [federal emergency] funds," says Ammiano. "I take great umbrage with this. I'm the one that introduced this and now the mayor and Bitoff are usurping it. And then I got a response, 'Well, the money for that month wouldn't have been that much anyway, so poo-poo-poo.' So it did not make me feel that [John Bitoff] exactly had his pulse on the needs of San Francisco."

Insufficient Data?
The EOP was created with the input of maybe 40 people, says Hedleston, who emphasizes that the draft EOP is just that, a continuously evolving draft. That's good news, because the EOP harbors a number of glaring flaws.

For instance, at some point in the future, a deep-Pacific earthquake will create a tsunami that will approach the Golden Gate at nearly the speed of sound. As it reaches shore, the wall of water will slow and rear up to a potential height of 20 feet before it breaks an inundates low-lying areas. According to the EOP, its "area of potential inundation" will stretch from the Palace of Fine Arts along the Embarcadero to China Basin. Yet the plan ignores the Richmond and Sunset districts, large swaths of which are at or below the "scenario" or planned-for 20-foot level.

Hedleston says that San Francisco-bound tsunamis can usually be predicted with several hours' notice -- four in the case of an Alaskan event. He adds that following a tsunami warning, the city will just evacuate the coast. That figures, but this common-sense procedure isn't spelled out in the EOP.

But there are other problems. The EOP lists no Asian-language radio station among its media contacts, although Hedleston says that "our Asian community, particularly the Chinatown area, is critical" to emergency management because of its population density, as well as language and cultural barriers. He says the OES is actively trying to locate such a radio station, but is discovering an additional problem: Newer immigrants from China tend to speak Mandarin, rather than Cantonese, the dominant San Franciscan dialect.

The EOP does list as a contact Brisbane's KTSF-TV (which broadcasts programs in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) and San Francisco's KDTV (Spanish). Newspapers like El Mensajero, Nichi Bei Times, Sing Tao Daily, Philippine News, and Russian Daily Life will be relied upon to spread less immediate disaster information to the city's sizable non-English-speaking communities.

Although earthquakes are the document's raison d'étre, the EOP also features page after page of lush descriptions of another Level 3-quality incident: nuclear blasts caused by war, accident, or terrorism. The EOP largely adopts Strangelovian optimism in the case of an exploding nuke, but its stiff-upper-lip phrasing can be grim, especially the paragraph headed "Accidental Launch":

"The possibility remains for an accidental launch of a nuclear warhead toward California. Should this occur, the affected area would be limited and the remaining resources of the state could be applied." Technically correct, but the EOP's idea of "limited" bears thinking about.

The plan occasionally dips further into bureaucratese, writing about an "animal control and reunification effort" where "finding lost pets" might do; and "timeroll recordation" where "time sheets" could suffice. But sometimes the euphemisms are welcome, as when the medical examiner's charge to handle masses of dead bodies is described as "Manag[ing] safe and appropriate disposition of fatalities."

The plan calls for evacuating prisoners from city jails to the already overcrowded San Bruno facility, and lists two differing fax numbers, on successive pages, to which city department heads are to send Situation Status Reports. And in a list of Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) for city departments, San Francisco International Airport's address is listed as "P.O. Box 8097, San Francisco, 94128," which will hardly help people and agencies determine where in the airport complex the airport's EOC is. Near the parking garage? The Southwest Airlines ticket desk? You can't tell, and neither can other emergency agencies, which may be relying on the airport for emergency aid from Travis Air Force Base.

Asked about the SFO item, Hedleston says, "Where is that? ... Oh, that's funny. 'We'll give you our post office box. Don't call us, we'll call you.' " He does, however, make a note on his "live" draft of the EOP, perhaps to find a physical address for SFO.

This highlights a less direct problem of the EOP: Large chunks of information have been provided primarily by departmental representatives, not the OES. Laurie Friedman, the consulting technical writer for the project, says she rewrote and edited the entire document at least three times, but still: In a document this huge there are bound to be errors, both of grammar and of fact. And if an agency says something obviously absurd -- like that it will operate from a post office box during a major disaster -- it may not get corrected until someone combs through the plan and makes noise.

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