Masters of Disaster

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

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.

Why the Fire Department? Because fire suppression must be the city's No. 1 priority, a bitter lesson of the 1906 earthquake. Hedleston says that 16 blocks of Van Ness Avenue -- which had largely survived the initial shaking -- were dynamited in a last-ditch effort to stop the fires that burned Nob Hill and the Tenderloin to the ground.

The EOP posits four levels of emergency response: Zero is for the yawn of day-to-day fires and murder; Level 1 is for a "local emergency," equaling the sinkhole incident or the shootings at 101 California; and Level 2 designates a "local disaster" "affecting multiple city services, populations and geographic areas," such as the riots following the Rodney King verdict.

Level 3, though, is for an Irwin Allen-quality, I'll-see-you-in-hell "regional disaster involving widespread damage to structures and disruption of services." This category covers major earthquakes (over 6.5 Richter), airliner crashes, "hazmat" disasters like exploding oil tankers, and thermonuclear war.

Among those catastrophes, a major earthquake is the only one that cannot accurately be foreseen or prevented. Seismologists tell us that an 8.3 shaker like the 1906 quake will likely be the maximum "event" generated by the San Andreas fault. The consequences of a repeat of this earthquake were studied in 1995 by Stanford University and Risk Management Solutions Inc., a Menlo Park-based engineering firm. The study estimated that the total economic hit from such an event would be "seven times greater than the worst earthquake losses experienced to date in California ... $170-225 billion versus Northridge's estimated $25-30 billion loss. Loma Prieta caused approximately $7 billion in losses."

Also, between 3,000 and 8,000 fatalities would occur, along with "8,000 to 18,000 serious (hospitalized) injuries."

How to match levels of readiness to disasters is an ongoing debate within the OES. Carl Hedleston tends toward a conservative approach, while colleague Frank Schober, who currently is designing training exercises for the new EOP, tends to be a little more aggressive, Hedleston says. The final decision belongs to OES chief Bitoff.

The study predicts that four of the five transbay bridges -- the Golden Gate, Dumbarton, Bay, and San Mateo/Hayward -- will be temporarily closed, if not collapsed like the Bay Bridge following Loma Prieta. Many of the 10-county area's freeways and 4,100 other bridges will have to be closed for inspections, regardless of whether they have visible damage.

Other transit will be disrupted as well, including ferry service and shipping to the ports of Oakland and Redwood City. The runways at San Francisco and Oakland airports, built on sediment, will have to close to be inspected for damage; and the peninsular lines of Caltrain and BART will be damaged as well.

Fires will exact an estimated $12 billion to $18 billion worth of damage to buildings, at least a dozen times that of the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Relatively speaking, life will be a breeze 72 hours after the quake. By then, the fires should be extinguished; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which handles more predictable disasters, should be up and running; "mutual aid" agreements with unaffected cities will provide us with more docs and more blood; the National Guard will enforce curfews and/or martial law; Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw will chopper in to do epauleted stand-ups near the most impressively crushed buildings; and the Valley's Travis Air Force Base will direct the airlift of thousands of tons of supplies to whatever local runways remain intact.

But in the first 72 hours, the city of San Francisco will be very much on its own, isolated at the very tip of a long peninsula by the collapse of an aging infrastructure. In that time, the EOP will be the city's maximum self-help book.

The EOP anticipates such disruption of normal chains of command after a major quake that, for the first time since 1906, the city's fate will be in the hands of firefighters at the battalion level.

The EOP's decentralized command plan evolved from the Fire Department's existing Battalion Command system, which divides the city into 12 districts (including one for San Francisco's airport), each centered around a fire battalion station. (A 13th district will soon be added as Navy-surplus Treasure Island is woven into the plan.)

In the case of a Level 3 disaster, the Battalion Command districts will become Emergency Response Districts (ERDs), and battalion fire chiefs will be designated "Incident Commanders." The Incident Commanders will become the emergency "minimayors" of their districts, although the OES shies away from calling them that, and lay full claim to the city resources in their districts until order is restored. Other city departments -- including the police -- will serve in support roles.

The ERD machine is supposed to start itself as soon as the ground stops moving. Pre-assigned representatives of the major city departments, as well as workers from PG&E, the Red Cross, and Pacific Bell, will automatically report to their designated Battalion Stations, performing preliminary damage assessment on the way in. The ERDs will run as miniature cities until reliable links with the city's Emergency Command Center, where the mayor and normal executive authority reside, are re-established. In theory, this scheme will let San Francisco dodge the paralysis of top-down command that Kobe and its citizens suffered in the first 72 hours after that quake.

So far, this common-sense idea is being used by only a handful of other jurisdictions: in hurricane-prone Florida (Coral Gables and Miami) and Salt Lake City, which is also at earthquake risk.

Who's the Boss?
When John Bitoff met Carl Hedleston in 1991, Hedleston was the boss. The former Army lieutenant colonel was running the get-out-the-vote phone banks for Frank Jordan in his runoff against Art Agnos, and on the campaign's final night, Bitoff and his daughter walked in to volunteer. One thing led to another, and after Jordan made Bitoff the OES chief in March 1992, Bitoff persuaded Hedleston to accept a position as one of OES's five mayoral appointees.

Although all five OES staffers are Jordan appointees, they have some job security in Mayor Willie Brown's regime: According to two city officials unconnected with the office, the only people who know how to execute the new EOP are the current OES appointees.

Under Mayor Art Agnos, the OES acquired a reputation in the Bay Area planning community as a black hole, say several city and regional disaster planners. The old EOP was a great reference book, but so unfamiliar to city officials that it was ignored following Loma Prieta. (Current OES staffers refer to the old plan as "a doorstop.")

Even after that quake, "OES was [still] very, very deficient," says Jorge Palafox, a paramedic who is the Health Department's disaster specialist. "One of the major issues was not only that plans were lacking, but also dialogue between the ... response agencies. So OES made an effort to get [department] representatives in."

Using the new mayor's signature authority, Hedleston organized representatives from the often fractious city departments into a consensus-building committee. Jordan's honeymoon clout was "very useful in the early part of the administration because everybody's afraid of you," Hedleston says.

The EOP revision, scheduled to take six months, stretched into 2 1/2 years. Only last September did the Disaster Council, a charter-mandated group of supervisors and city department heads, approve the switch-over from the old EOP to the new draft.

The only supervisor to comment on the disaster plan so far is Kevin Shelley, who believes the OES is eager to rush the new plan through. Mayor Brown might want to review it, he says, and other city officials fret about the plan's failure to establish the citywide costs of implementing it.

Hedleston confirms this worry, saying only that implementation of the EOP will be "a gradual process" largely dependent on each department's budget.

"What if Brown has different ideas?" Shelley continues. "With all the pressing issues like Muni [and] 911 ... it hasn't hit the mayor's radar screen yet."

Meanwhile, the new mayor has made his presence known at the OES, taking a short-notice, no-cameras-please tour of the agency's Turk Street headquarters on March 5.

When the political dance concludes, the OES's first order of business will be to lecture city department heads, especially the police and fire chiefs, about the ERD system. And there are several "live" multidepartment exercises planned to test the new EOP. On April 18, the 90th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, the OES will roll out several tests of the ERDs. Also, city departments will set up their own Emergency Operations Centers, separate from the ERD system, to test how well they communicate with the OES's Turk Street headquarters.

An actual ERD will be set up in Battalion District 10 in Bayview-Hunters Point, with city workers performing simulated search-and-rescue and hazardous-materials drills, especially appropriate given Hunters Point's proximity to the bay and several industrial sites. There also will be "simulated structural damage to buildings, freeways, and streets," according to Fire Battalion Chief Rich Bracco.

Bracco says the infant ERD system was first tested last Oct. 17, the anniversary of Loma Prieta, and that he was generally pleased by how well city departments functioned together. It was "probably the first time that I've seen all the different city agencies represented in one location, working together on a major disaster," he says.

In the April 18 test, the city's 49 emergency sirens -- installed in 1942 after Pearl Harbor -- will be activated. The OES's Schober notes that his department's budget calls for new sirens; the current wailers don't transmit speech, which would be helpful in the case of an evacuation.

Many city employees were told to stay home the day after the Loma Prieta earthquake by then-Mayor Agnos. But the EOP's new approach is to remind all city employees of their statutory responsibilities as public servants: to become "disaster service workers," in any capacity the government deems appropriate, in an emergency.

"I think the public has a right to expect that these employees are going to not sit home," says the OES's Schober, "that we're going to use every single one of them that we can to mitigate the effects of a disaster."

A Visit to the Calamity Ranch
The OES occupies a sylvan setting in the 1000 block of Turk Street, just four blocks from City Hall. When the Level 3 whistle blows, the mayor and his department heads are supposed to high-tail it there. The rest of the mayoral staff -- excepting perhaps a bodyguard and press secretary -- will assemble at the Moscone Center, which will function as the secondary command center (bureaucratically, the Alternate Staff Operations Site).

Once inside, the mayor will digest information about the disaster and make the most critical decisions, Hedleston says. These include looking at the citywide firefighting picture, declaring a state of emergency, and possibly declaring a curfew and/or martial law. The staff over at Moscone will focus on longer-term goals, such as providing liaison with the outside world -- talking to FEMA, the state OES, and Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, the designated rallying point for incoming federal aid. Staffers will also coordinate with the Red Cross to provide food, water, and shelter, deal with dignitaries and the media, and handle other secondary problems.

The command table at the OES awaits the disaster brigade: During one visit, there are 10 chairs grouped around it, sharp pencils and pads of paper waiting and ready to go. Draped over every chair is a purple nylon vest, emblazoned with the title of a city department head.

The OES looks like any other city office except for its proliferation of communications equipment: too many phones, multiple fax machines, and a multitude of other communications equipment positioned everywhere. Flip charts, maps, and computers complete the communications overload. Powering all of this machinery through a disaster, of course, will be a free-standing generator.

Rivaling anything afforded a Star Fleet commander, Carl Hedleston has at his disposal a desktop computer and modem, a laptop, a pocket cellular, a land-line AT&T phone, and a compact Motorola device that combines a cellular phone, a dozen channels of police and fire radio, and an 800-MHz channel, which is supposed to become the city's interagency standard by 1999.

On the day of my interview with John Bitoff, he is impeccably dressed in a double-breasted blazer -- navy of course. He is cheerful, polite, and patient despite the fact that he must also be tense: Mayor Brown has scheduled his first inspection of the OES for the following day.

The admiral -- as Bitoff invariably is called -- earns $80,727 of the OES's modest $429,859 annual budget for planning our way through the coming disaster. He acquired disaster credentials following the Loma Prieta quake: As head of the Navy's Northern California operations, he was Art Agnos' guest at Candlestick Park for the quake-aborted World Series game. Returning to headquarters on Treasure Island, Bitoff directed the airlift of earth-moving equipment to the collapsed Cypress Freeway in Oakland and ordered a destroyer to Hunters Point where the ship's powerful generators poured electricity into PG&E's grid.

Bitoff can be utterly professional and the soul of reason. But he remains accustomed to the perks of rank. On a visit to his office, I discover a black BMW sedan parked illegally in the long red zone in front of the OES, wheels not curbed. A glance at the windshield reveals a mayoral parking permit issued to "R. Adm. John Bitoff, USN Ret."

The Recovery Channel -- city cable Channel 54 -- will be the primary agent of the OES outreach following the big quake, says Bitoff. Its studios are downstairs from the purple-vested Table of Power at the OES headquarters, and to hear Bitoff tell it, information gleaned from the ERDs will be boiled down by the public affairs people upstairs and fed directly to you, the suffering citizen, from the basement studios.

"I think the psychological value of having the mayor or other high-ranking people here to ... broadcast, showing the people working [would create] a mental image of 'the city is doing something,' rather than broadcasting from an executive office," he says. "I want to be able to help people by putting up, say, FEMA forms, on the television, and ... do it, right there, 'You fill out one through seven and 11, and then you sign it down here.' "

"I'd also like to bring in psychologists and psychiatrists to do post-traumatic stress syndrome [counseling], to tell people that if they don't feel good that's OK, a lot of people aren't feeling good. And then to bring in people to tell them how to do temporary repairs on their homes or put a tarp on their roof, and a whole myriad of things like that."

Bitoff has earned strong marks from other department heads, but Supervisor Tom Ammiano is no fan. Following the damaging storms of December '94/January '95, Ammiano persuaded the board to pass a resolution saying that the city should seek federal disaster monies. That earned him what he considers an imperious letter from Bitoff.

"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.

And essentially no one outside the planning process has scoured the EOP. Two OES staffers, in separate conversations, joke that I may be the only person to have read it in its entirety.

Blood Everywhere -- Honest!
When the next big quake comes along and claims those estimated 8,000 to 18,000 casualties, a flood of blood will be needed. The source will be the Irwin Memorial Blood Bank, headquartered on Masonic near Turk, which collects and distributes roughly 300 units per day throughout San Francisco and Marin counties.

Is Irwin ready? The EOP notes that Irwin "has [only] enough equipment in stock to draw 5,000 units of blood. In general, San Francisco hospitals have no supplies for drawing blood. ... Irwin has a VERY LIMITED capability to type and screen or to crossmatch blood. Hospitals are expected to do their own crossmatching, as they currently do." In other words, after drawing 5,000 units of 450 ml each, Irwin, the city's one-stop blood source, will be finished until it obtains more disposable syringes, bags, bandages, and other gear from outside the city. And Irwin can draw blood -- up to a point -- but can't really type it, while the hospitals can type it in their labs, but can't draw it. Some system.

In a speakerphone interview with three Irwin officials, Richard Harveston, Irwin's director of blood product services, downplays these concerns, saying that in a severe disaster the bank would just bring in pre-typed blood products from the outside world. But the OES's planners assume the city to be isolated for the first 72 hours. How will Irwin import more blood? In the ensuing conversation, all Harveston volunteers is generalities about how it won't be a problem.

Pressed on the point, Irwin's supervisor of blood product services, Paul Merrill, boasts, "We can get blood here within the hour from anywhere in California." Considering that you can't even fly from L.A. to San Francisco in that time, this seems unlikely.

Harveston and Merrill seem incapable of imagining being isolated from the statewide blood-banking system. "I think the logistics might be difficult -- getting it in -- but just getting one's hands on large amounts of blood would not be difficult," says Harveston. After a major earthquake, one would have to agree, but perhaps not in the way he thinks. The folks at Irwin do, however, note that there is a total of 2,000 units of blood in stock at Irwin and about 2,000 more on the shelves of city hospitals.

Has there ever been a really large-scale need for blood in the United States? They apparently don't know.

"The worst need for blood I've ever seen was in a low-level [Avianca] airplane crash [on Long Island two years ago]," Harveston answers. But what about the need for blood in a really large-scale earthquake-type disaster?

Harveston again: "The need for blood after an earthquake is minimal, if experience we have previously had holds true. ... I know that we used virtually no blood after the Loma Prieta earthquake. I could count [it] on one hand."

But the concern here is for a major disaster, not Loma Prieta. Think big-bigger-biggest. The conversation is disturbing in that Harveston and Merrill, despite their experience, don't seem to have the specifics of how Irwin would operate after a major disaster, nor how other blood organizations have done so around the world.

In a second phone conversation five days later, Irwin's president, Dr. William Heaton, fields the questions. He explains in exhaustive detail that blood demand didn't increase much after the Kobe quake relative to the normal elective-surgery demand; that Irwin has five days' worth of diesel for its generator and a deal to secure another truckful if necessary; that Irwin has 10 vans and a four-wheel-drive for transporting blood around the city; how Sacramento blood banks would drive through San Jose to get to San Francisco in 24 hours; and so on.

Getting Irwin to articulate its plans for the aftermath illustrates the OES's underlying challenge: Public and private disaster planners, as well as generals, must take care not to fight the last war -- Loma Prieta, in this case -- but look ahead to the next one.

Disaster Is in the Details
The EOP isn't all sketchy details. The Emergency Broadcast System, which has metamorphosed into the Emergency Alert System, will serve as the Bay Area's post-doom voice. And the EOP has thoughtfully written the lede for broadcasters in this and 15 other kinds of emergency:

"At approximately (blank) today, an earthquake registering (blank) on the Richter scale struck the (blank) area, with its epicenter at (blank). Fire and police units were immediately dispatched ..." Having these sorts of messages on hand and thought out ahead of time will certainly smooth the flow of information to the public.

Since a post-earthquake incident isn't the right time for playing, the Recreation and Park Department will "establish and maintain shelter operations" in conjunction with the Red Cross. If such shelters become necessary, Rec/Park will also provide specialists to work with the disabled, the elderly, children, non-English speakers, and the deaf.

Although it's covered only lightly in the EOP, the city's formal emergency services will be assisted by trained civilian volunteers: NERTs (Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams). NERTs were formed by the Fire Department when a group of citizens from the heavily damaged Marina District insisted that the city should have a program for organizing citizen volunteers, such as Los Angeles does.

Starting with just 24 people in 1990, the SFFD's program coordinator, Frank Lucier, says that 4,500 San Franciscans have already taken NERT training, and that 1,500 more will be trained this year in everything from home preparedness to fighting small fires. The trainees have also learned how to lift heavy objects and perform light search-and-rescue. With their thousands of knowledgeable eyes and ears, NERTs will help the professional services move their resources to where they are most critically needed. The NERTs don't cost the city to train, by the way; they're funded by in-kind donations from the American Red Cross and Chevron.

"There have been a number of disasters around the world ... where we've really gotten to take a look at what happens afterwards," says Lucier. "And the people who are there at ground zero when disaster hits are going to be the first responders, whether it's the Oklahoma City bombing or Kobe or Northridge. ... Unless [citizens] have skills, they're really going to be out of luck. They're not really going to [do] what they could be capable of doing."

Before any volunteer can lift a finger to help the government during an emergency, he or she must take a "Disaster Service Worker Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance," swearing to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion."

Sound familiar? The state-mandated oath is like the one taken every day by armed-forces inductees and ordinary civil servants, and makes sense in time of war; but its practicality in peacetime emergencies seems questionable and somewhat McCarthy-ish. After all, who is going to subvert the Constitution when the city is on fire?

The OES's Frank Schober says the rationale behind this requirement is so that volunteers -- now "virtual state employees" -- can be covered by workers' compensation. "It's not to assure that people are loyal or not loyal, it's only to fulfill that segment of the law," he says. "It still may be arcane, but if we don't do it, then we have problems." In short, insurance is driving state disaster policy.

Readers may think it the rudest sort of joke that Muni buses will become the city's "Patient transport/evacuation" service in a major emergency. But it's true: Overheating, outdated, roach-infested diesels will be our smoky Florence Nightingales. Not only that, the EOP requires Muni to send "one motorcoach, radio equipped" to each ERD to serve as mobile command centers for other city departments.

Then there's water, or the lack of it. According to the EOP, the city abdicates responsibility for supplying food, water, and shelter. These tasks will be turned over to the American Red Cross: "In the event of a lack of a potable supply of water to a portion of the city, the American Red Cross has lead responsibility for distribution of potable water when it cannot be delivered through the City's water system. Water tankers are generally available for non-potable water distribution only."

The Red Cross's senior disaster specialist-preparedness, John Ramsey, denies that the Red Cross will become the city's drinking-water supplier. Mass potable water is one of those "things that the city and county's Health Department will work with," he says. "We don't actually have the water buffaloes [army tanker-trailers] ourselves, but the military may have them and they need to work with the city and county and some other agencies to provide those."

Where will the water come from, then?
Carl Hedleston says that is the Water Department's responsibility, and that Frank Schober is working with them to acquire fire-hydrant spigots that will allow citizens draw water directly from the Fire Department's surviving water system. In any case, water shouldn't be that great a concern in the first 72 hours, Hedleston says. "The common fallacy is that people will begin dying of ... thirst the minute the earthquake occurs -- it ain't accurate. It's more important for us, if there's water available for our fire hoses, to put out the fires. ... If someone goes thirsty for a day, frankly, it's not [that] important for us."

Then there is another section where basic fact-checking appears to have been ignored, under "Command and Policy Group: Policy Considerations." One task of the Command Group is to "Determine ... whether to control critical consumables in retail and wholesale establishments." The consumables listed are containerized drinking water, perishable and nonperishable food, gasoline, and pharmaceuticals.

But also mentioned are "Emergency water substitutes: carbonated beverages, beer, wine, etc." and "Liquor supplies."

One of the most basic effects of alcohol (or the caffeine in many carbonated drinks, like Pepsi) is that it dehydrates. Controlling the city's booze supply for "water substitutes" would only produce a citizenry that was thirsty and half in the bag.

"That's a real Herb Caen piece right there. If it wasn't going to come out, it just came out," says Hedleston, marking the relevant page in his copy of the EOP. He adds that the passage is meant only to raise the issue of controlling the retail alcohol supply during the first 72 hours of an emergency, a real concern in the case of rioting.

Then there's an annex to the plan which mentions that the city's Peninsula reservoirs, Crystal Springs, Pilarcitos, and San Andreas, have an average of "20 billion gallons of water which can be delivered to the city without pumping [emphasis in the original]."

This is incorrect, says Water Department Manager John Mullane. "It's not 'without pumping.' The water we get out of the [Hetch Hetchy reservoir] system basically flows by gravity until it gets down into the Bay Area. From the Bay Area, we have to pump it. So there's really no water that comes into the city that's not pumped." And getting the water here will still require undamaged pipelines and working electrical generators.

These mistakes and oddities in the EOP only highlight the fact that the plan, while winning official applause from city department heads and unofficial applause from the state OES, was created by a relatively small number of people and could benefit from a public airing, a "reality check," if you will.

And while Bitoff and company apparently have tried much harder than their predecessors to plan for disaster from the macro to the micro, they can only do so much. It is politically impossible for the OES to harangue all the agencies and nongovernmental organizations that will respond in a disaster, or to make sure that they all have their own cohesive disaster plans.

"Potential Rubble"
Without a doubt, the city's disaster planners are better prepared to face a major emergency than they were in 1989.

"I don't think you can ever be ready enough," acknowledges Bitoff, but after a bit of hedging, he adopts a can-do stance: "If we had a major crisis today, we could handle it."

Bitoff and his lieutenants are convinced. The state OES, unofficially, is convinced. Yet no amount of planning can completely prepare the city to deal with the first 72 hours following a major quake. Disasters will always generate some unpredictable, random event that turns the best-laid plans to hash. Will city officials ignore the new EOP when the next quake strikes as they did in 1989, and wing it? Will they order yet another rewrite of the EOP? Can disasters be managed from a playbook?

Chief Building Inspector Laurence Kornfield isn't sanguine about a post-earthquake San Francisco. Sometimes, all he can think of is the devastation of Kobe.

"When I walk around the city, the streets of San Francisco, I don't see buildings. For the first few months after I got back from Kobe, I didn't really see them. What I saw was potential rubble."

Potential rubble.
"What is this building going to look like [after a quake]? Well, maybe that beam will hold it up. And I still see that. I still see it through those eyes.

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