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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Guest Commentary: Preparing For The Worst At Any Age

by E.A. Roberts


Obviously disaster preparedness is on everyone’s mind, since the little mini-emergency that occurred in January and last week's council discussion on what we could do better. A furious wind and rain storm blew into town, attended by a checkerboard power outage of the weirdest variety. Some folks in Davis had power, while others without huddled in the dark and cold - often directly (and infuriatingly) across the street from each other. Oh the whims of mother nature - very unpredictable. On the other hand, some resulting responses to this event were quite unsurprising.

Many politicians and citizens were flabbergasted at how unprepared our local government was in handling this crisis, while others took things in stride remarkably well. I was of the latter assortment, but only because I knew ahead of time what to expect. Not too long ago I was involved in an attempt to address the issue of disaster preparedness for residential care facilities for the elderly and skilled nursing facilities. This interesting endeavor had its extremely eye-opening moments.

The Hurricane Katrina disaster was of monumental proportions, but instructive nevertheless on how government should NOT respond in the event of a major disaster. What follows is my very simplistic analysis of what went wrong, and how it relates to our own lack of emergency readiness. Firstly, the governor of Louisiana refused to make a decision to evacuate ahead of time, after learning that a severe storm was headed in her direction. Why? For many public officials, it feels better to make no decision than the wrong decision.

Evacuation of vulnerable seniors would have meant the coordination of a complex and massive effort, and some older individuals would have died in transit. The frail elderly do not travel well. In addition, the Gulf coast had weathered many hurricanes just fine without going to the necessity of a complicated mass departure. Besides, there really was not an overarching emergency plan in place of the magnitude necessary to displace that many people at one time. It was much simpler just to wait out the storm as they had successfully done every time in the past.

Secondly, the mayor of New Orleans was heard to say in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina some very telling words. When asked why he didn’t have a better disaster plan in place, his reply was something to the effect that it had just been too difficult. Now I took that to mean he did not have the leadership skills to get everyone who needed to be involved to cooperate in developing a disaster plan on the scale required to be truly effective. Again, an abdication of responsibility - no decision rather than the wrong one.

Thirdly, when the federal government realized the governor was not going to evacuate the helpless, either before or after the storm, the president should have stepped in much earlier. He could have overridden the governor’s paralysis by declaring a state of emergency - which was not done until AFTER television cameras appeared on the scene to embarrass all levels of government. Again, the president abdicated his greater responsibility, under the guise of FEMA regulations, which indicate assistance is by state invitation only. The president had determined he was not invited, until public embarrassment dictated otherwise.

However, it should also be noted that a thirty foot wall of water crashed over the city of Biloxi, Mississippi. Huge levees gave way in New Orleans, a city built below sea level. Water poured in and rose to the level of one and two stories. A decision had to be made quickly to let loose hardened criminals from the city jail or sit by and let these prisoners drown. During the storm communications stopped working, including land lines and cell phones. Even satellite telephones were inoperable.

Transportation out of town for seniors was supposed to have been provided by school buses - that were useless and under water by the time any government official decided it was time to act. Emergency personnel and law enforcement found themselves torn between staying on the job or taking care of their own families. Mass desertions were the order of the day. Looting was rampant. Chaos was in the ascendency.

Even when the National Guard was sent in to rescue folks, many citizens, especially the elderly, refused to leave their homes and/or pets. As a result, there was very little cooperation among/by citizens themselves. Nor was there any between agencies, government entities or administrators. There was no clear chain of command, no one willing to really take charge. In fact, if I remember my facts correctly, the one person who finally did assume authority of the situation was a highly placed officer in the National Guard.

It is important to take stock of what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina that is common to most disasters and/or emergencies:
1) communications failure;
2) power outages;
3) blocked roads;
4) lack of transportation;
5) insufficient community shelters;
6) no decision made rather than the wrong one;
7) inadequate disaster plans;
8) no clear chain of command;
9) citizens not personally prepared;
10) uncooperative citizens.

However, the severity of the disaster must be factored in. Hurricane Katrina would have been devastating no matter how well prepared everyone was. The type of disaster also has to be taken into account. A heat wave requires a different sort of response than a flood, fire, terrorist attack, or disease epidemic. And that is not an exhaustive list of catastrophe categories by the way. I remember living through a severe gasoline shortage in the early 1970’s and a locust swarm in the 1960‘s (crunch, crunch). The age and health of citizens is another dynamic to consider.

Readers can draw their own conclusions as to how well Davis fared during the recent storm. From a personal perspective, my family and I sheltered in place quite comfortably. We had plenty of food, blankets, flashlights and batteries. A battery operated radio was tuned into a Sacramento station to keep abreast of the weather and power outage situation. As it so happened, our gas tank level was low, but we did manage to find a filling station open. It was determined we needed to keep a little spare fuel in an appropriate container on hand in the future.

Two of our three cell phones did not work, nor did our regular cordless telephones. It was not that cold outside, so it wasn’t difficult to keep warm, but could have been had the temperature dropped. We determined it would have been best to keep a bag or two of charcoal briquettes on hand, to fire up our two small hibachi grills for cooking outside. Then I took a trip to a large store, and headed for the fishing/hardware department.

You would not believe the wonderful survival gear that can be found there. Flashlights that are rechargeable, freeze dried foods that last seven years, fire sticks that are waterproof and can provide heat and light, solar lanterns, hand crank AM/FM radio/flashlight/siren, night lights that stay on in a power outage, reflective warmth blankets, combination compass/whistle/match holder - you name it, they had it. I must have spent at least two solid hours marveling at the variety of clever things that can keep a human being alive in an emergency.

It would be interesting to see how readers rate our city’s collective response to the storm. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the nth degree of readiness possible, how would you rate:
a) The city’s response to the recent storm? Take into account the type of emergency and its severity.
b) Your response to the recent storm? Take into account your age and health, type of emergency and severity.
c) PG&E’s response to the recent storm? Take into account the type of emergency and its severity.
d) What could the city have done better? What did it do well?
e) What could you have done better? What did you do well?
f) What could PG&E have done better? What did it do well?

Here is my assessment (click to enlarge):

My reasoning is as follows:

Communications failure - The city was remiss here, in not figuring out a way to communicate with its citizens during a power outage. Only one family turned up at the emergency shelter, because Davisites had no way of knowing a shelter was open. There has been a suggestion there be a physical place in Davis for communications to be posted, which sounds like a very good idea. The Davis Fire Chief did contact facilities housing the elderly, so I gave the city three points for that on the plus side. I had the good sense to have a battery operated radio, and could charge my cell phone via my car battery. On the other hand, I made no prior plans to call family or friends as contact points, so I only gave myself six points. PG&E really fell down on this one, failing to notify anyone about anything, so they received a big fat zero in this category.

Power outages - The city failed abysmally here, not making contingency plans in case of a massive power outage. The local radio station was down, as was the city’s website. I wonder if there would have even been a heated community shelter available, if the entire city had been without electricity? The 911 system was inoperable for a short time, but I gave the city one point for rerouting calls while getting 911 back up and running. >From a personal perspective, I was pretty prepared for a power outage, with plenty of batteries, some charcoal briquettes, hot water, gas stove, and flashlights. I only gave myself a nine because I should have laid in a better supply of charcoal for my two hibachi grills. PG&E received a nine from me for doing a fantastic job fixing downed poles and whatever else they had to do, in order to restore electricity. I deducted a point because there was someone without power several days after the storm.

Blocked roads - The city gets a nine for removing tree limbs and debris to keep the roads open. I, on the other hand, made no effort to do so, and thus am given a zero. Of course PG&E is not responsible for that particular task.

Lack of transportation - As far as I know, the city did not provide any way for an elder in crisis to get to the community shelter. But since the ambulances were probably running, I decided to give the city one point. Of course our family had a car, but I only gave myself a score of five on this one because we did not think to keep a small amount of gasoline on hand in case of an emergency.

Insufficient shelter - I only gave the city one point because even though a shelter was provided, it was done almost as an afterthought. Nor did most people even know of its existence, which effectively made it nonexistent. Our family sheltered in place quite nicely, but I deducted one point from a perfect ten because we should have done a bit more to ensure heat.

No decision rather than wrong one - At least the mayor had the good sense to urge a warming shelter be created, and has suggested some future alternatives. But let’s face it, some planning should have been done long before the storm hit. So I gave the city three points on this one. Our family was fairly well prepared, and I had no hesitancy to make whatever decisions were necessary to protect my family, so I gave myself a nine (still could have planned a bit better). PG&E received five points for deciding to fix the problem rather than worry about communicating with the public. But I deducted five points for their failure to communicate. Why couldn’t they have put something out over the radio to reassure us, if nothing else?

Inadequate disaster plan - I gave the city five points because about half was done right and half wrong. The city did a great job in removing debris, and contacted the facilities for the elderly and disabled. However, city government did not do a great job in communicating with its citizens, and only provided a warming shelter as an addendum. On the other hand, I gave myself and my family an eight, because we were fairly well prepared, although we could have done a few things better. PG&E, like the city, did half their job right and half wrong - a virtuoso performance in fixing equipment to get the power back on line, but no plan in place to notify customers what was going on and when to expect relief.

No clear chain of command - The mayor had to argue with the city manager on who was in charge, so the city only gets five on this one. I am the clear boss in my household, and took charge in this crisis, so of course I gave myself a ten.

Citizens not personally prepared - The city does not seem to have made citizens aware that personal responsibility has to take place when it comes to disaster planning. This is true of even the frail elderly, who must make sure family or neighbors come to their rescue in an emergency. Everyone needs to have a prior plan. I gave the city one point for at least having set up a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program through our local fire department. Since I was fairly well prepared, I gave myself an eight, but there is still room for improvement. I am not sure if PG&E has put disaster preparedness literature as inserts with their bills. If yes, they get a ten, if not a zero.

Uncooperative citizens - The mayor should not have to argue with the city manager to be heard when making suggestions. However, some steps were taken to at least open a warming shelter, so I gave the city a five on this one, which may be a bit high. A score of one went to me for not making the effort to check on anyone else. Twenty lashes with a wet noodle to me!

Take note of the final overall scores - about three and a half for the city; over six for me, and about a five for PG&E. I felt more prepared than the city, but I didn’t take the trouble to check on others or contribute to the solution in terms of my community. The city definitely needs to make some changes - partner with UCD to house a community shelter in a place that will always have power, or purchase a generator for the senior center and use it as a warming center in an emergency; post communications on a community board in case of power outages; educate the public as to each individual’s responsibilities to have in place a personal disaster plan prior to any emergency; promote the CERT program to promote “block captain” training; encourage private facilities to coordinate better emergency plans. PG&E definitely should work on building a better communication network in case of power outages, to reassure the public.

LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Forewarned is forearmed. Always be prepared. If you are an older person residing alone or live in a facility for the elderly, make sure to develop emergency plans with nearby relatives or a friend that can get to you fast. Your government may not be available to assist in a disaster, so don’t rely heavily on their presence when developing a crisis policy.

FYI, the county is undertaking disaster planning for the elderly and disabled, for a nine county area. However it must be noted any emergency scheme is only as good as the people executing it. Any municipality can have the greatest disaster strategy in the world ready to roll out, but if leaders are not capable, or repeated drills are not done, the best laid plans can go to pieces under pressure in a heartbeat.

DEATH NOTICE: My client, the one having extreme difficulty with her homeowners association, died suddenly just after Christmas. If you would like to better understand what happened, a very tragic story, you can listen to my prerecorded radio broadcast at I am still pursuing her case, and will apprise you of an update at the appropriate time. What isn’t well known is the mortgage meltdown across our country is not the only reason for the current spate of foreclosures. Gargantuan increases in homeowner association fees has been another contributing factor.

FRAUD ALERT: “The Yolo County District Attorney Elder Protection Unit wants to alert you about two telephone scams. The first scam involved a call from someone claiming to be from PG&E who said …the victim’s last payment check bounced and they would cut off …power that night unless she provided a credit card number. In less than two hours $400 in fraudulent charges were made by the crooks.

The second scam was from a senior in Esparto who received a telephone call from someone saying that everyone on Medicare needed a special ID card verifying that they are a US citizen. The caller asked for a date of birth and then a bank account number. District Attorney Jeff Reisig wants to remind people to be very suspicious when someone calls asking for personal information EVEN IF THEY SOUND OFFICIAL. These people are experts at using your emotions to trick you.

Unless you initiated the contact with a business, don’t give out any confidential information - like your credit card number, social security number, PIN, birth date or even your mother’s maiden name. Remember you CAN stop phone fraud - just hang up.”

Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please make your opinion known in the comment section.