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Disaster on Gulf Coast shows the unthinkable does happen

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Posted: Friday, September 9, 2005 10:00 pm

For decades, residents on the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi have known they live in the path of hurricanes. Here in California, people live on top of fault lines that are primed to explode with devastating earthquakes.

Lodi also is at risk to disaster -- both natural and manmade.

Despite that seemingly common knowledge, people still seem to be taken unaware when disaster strikes.

It's the responsibility of public agencies, however, to think out those worst-case scenarios, so when the unthinkable does happen, the appropriate authorities can respond in the most efficient manner.

Here in Lodi, the most likely catastrophic event would be a massive failure of Pardee Dam that would, in turn, cause Camanche Dam to crumble. Those failures could be triggered by a major earthquake nearby or a storm so severe it overwhelms the capacity of the dam.

If the dams were to fail, the Mokelumne River would turn into a rushing torrent that would wipe out Clements, and put much of Lodi under several feet of water.

That's according to an emergency preparedness report by East Bay Municipal Utility District, the agency that owns Pardee and Camanche reservoirs. Lodi's fire department used that report to develop parts of the city's emergency plan.

EBMUD's plan includes "inundation maps" that show most of northern Lodi would be flooded in about an hour after a total collapse, and the rest of the city in less than five hours.

Floodwaters would likely then spread over the huge Mokelumne flood plane, stretching from the Interstate 5 bridge to the north and parts of Stockton to the south.

Such a flood is not likely, but Lodi Fire Chief Michael Pretz said emergency planners need to avoid taking a "Sept. 10th" view of the world.

"At that time if you said someone could fly a plane into the World Trade Center, they would say you're crazy," he said recently.

Michael Pretz

Pretz isn't a stranger to the unthinkable. As a firefighter in the Fort Collins, Co. area about 25 years ago, he said he saw 13 inches of rain fall in just a few days, causing a flash flood through a mountain canyon that killed hundreds.

In the case of a large-scale dam failure near Lodi, Pretz said the city would get some warning by either the earthquake itself or the severity of the weather.

That would enable Lodi to get an evacuation order out and start moving people to higher ground toward Galt or to the area southeast of the city.

Responding to a catastrophe

The city's emergency plan outlines who is in charge and what to do, by assigning specific roles to the city's department heads. The city manager would assume control from the city's emergency operations center at the police station and direct city resources.

Police officers would likely move through neighborhoods alerting people to the evacuation order as firefighters helped infirm residents leave their homes.

Staff at local residential care homes said they have emergency plans in place as well as lists of volunteers to call for help with evacuating their residents.

Pretz said the city could evacuate people with school and transit buses, but he assumes most people would want to take their own vehicles. He said the city even has signs it can set up along evacuation routes that have radio transmitters. The small transmitters emit messages that can be picked up on car radios and alert people to why they need to evacuate and how.

"They're actually pretty nifty," Pretz said.

The enormity of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed emergency planners along the Gulf Coast, and if a catastrophe struck locally it would likely do the same.

"I've only got 15 firefighters on duty," Pretz said. "I think we'd do our best but our resources are limited and that's almost always an issue."

But Pretz said the emergency agencies of the entire state are linked by mutual aid agreements so that one community shouldn't be cut off from assistance for long. He said that system goes into action nearly every year as agencies call in support for large-scale wildfires.

During a large house fire last week, three outside agencies responded to assist in fighting the blaze.

Ron Baldwin

San Joaquin County Director of Emergency Services Ron Baldwin said the state has a good mutual aid system, but in the case of a major disaster, ultimately that depends on outside help.

"It is our responsibility to make the action plan and determine what we need," he said. "It is the state's and FEMA's (Federal Emergency Management Association) responsibility to be able to efficiently move the resources to us."

Getting the word out

In terms of evacuating Lodi, Baldwin said that's up to the city, and he added it's hard to create predetermined evacuation routes when one doesn't know how a disaster will unfold.

"We would use the Emergency Alert System, media and first responders to tell people what to do and where to go," he said.

Lodi, and the rest of the county, is home to a diverse mix of cultures and many residents have limited English skills or don't speak it at all.

Baldwin said the county has some translators, but likely could do more to ensure it can get emergency information out to everyone in the area.

"We probably need to do more work on this issue as we have resources available," he said.

Pretz said Lodi's fire department would use police translators to get the message out to the city's Hispanic community and would hope others in town could spread the message.

He said it's likely that most of the disasters Lodi may have to deal with would come with some warning, and in that case word usually gets spread by the community itself.

"By and large even though it's a diverse community, you universally get the word out to people," he said.

Getting the word out to residents in advance is one issue, but in the face of a truly catastrophic event, emergency workers would likely struggle to communicate between themselves.

Baldwin said the county is pursuing a master plan for its communication networks so city services can talk to each other.

"We have already purchased some equipment that will allow us to patch different frequencies together," he said.

Taking a look at the situation in New Orleans, Pretz said that region saw its entire communication network and power grid knocked out. In that case, he said emergency workers often have to rely on HAM radios or even messengers.

The city last updated its emergency plan in 1999. Since then, Pretz said, the plan has been reviewed and some elements updated.

Lodi's emergency command center used to be in the library; now it would be in the new police station. If that site proved untenable, the city could use its mobile command center, he said.

Pretz said he'd like to see the city purchase an advanced system to notify the city's leaders in case of an emergency, and also hold a widespread drill so people can be more familiar with where they need to be in case disaster strikes.

"It never hurts to practice," he said. "You can't practice too much."

Contact reporter Andrew Adams at andrewa@lodinews.com.

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