Officials Discuss Disaster Preparedness By Riya Bhattacharjee

Friday March 24, 2006

Top state, county and city emergency services officials from the State of California and Alameda County met with senior officials from UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, Vista College, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) and Bayer Health care yesterday to discuss emergency preparedness coordination and communication plans in the event of a major disaster in Berkeley. 

Participants included Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Bekeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Michelle Lawrence, State Emergency Services Coastal District Administrator Rich Eisner, Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz, Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton and UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. 

Mayor Tom Bates described the session as an “unique opportunity to get an understanding of how the city would operate during a disaster—especially the first four to five days.”  

Speaking to members of the media after the briefing session, the mayor said that in the event of a major disaster the City of Berkeley’s Public Safety Building at 2100 Martin Luther KIng, Jr. Way would be converted into a command center.  

He added that federal and state agencies would be carrying out emergency services throughout Berkeley and jointly making decisions on healthcare and evacuation services. In the event that cell phone services were disrupted, bicycle dispatchers would be sent out to act as messengers between city officials. There is also talk of using ham radios. 

Plans to involve community organizations such as churches and libraries in disaster preparedness methods are also being made by the city. 

A Bay Area earthquake is one of the three major disasters that have been predicted by FEMA—the other two being the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the twin hurricanes in Lousiana, which have already taken place. 

It was estimated from the briefing session that in the event of a major earthquake up to 500 people could be killed in Berkeley and the number could increase if the quake occurred during the day. The mayor, however, acknowledged that the Alameda County coroner’s office could only accommodate 40 bodies and that the possibility of refrigerated trucks to store the deceased had been discussed at the meeting.  

He added that the UC Berkeley gyms and recreation centers, the Lawrence Labs, and BUSD’s earthquake resistant buildings could also be used as shelters. It was estimated that up to 500 fires could also occur in the city during such a disaster.  

Superintendent Michelle Lawrence expressed concern at the fact that although schools in Berkeley were in good shape during the day, there was hardly anyone around in the evening to handle emergency situations. 

The city is also scheduled to carry out an earthquake drill on April 18 to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.  

The mayor also said that “Berkeley had always been a leader in emergency services and that it would continue to be so.” He added that it was extremely important for citizens to prepare for a sudden disaster in the best possible way.  

“Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for us. Everyone should start off by storing water and food for at least a couple of weeks since water is clearly going to be one of the major problems. Families should also have a plan of where to gather after a quake. They need to retrofit their homes in case that has not already been done,” he said. 

Currently 65 percent of houses in Berkeley are retrofitted, as well as all the schools. 

The mayor also stressed the importance of having an out-of-state phone number of a friend or a relative at all times, because of the high possibility of local lines going out of service during a quake. 

Speaking to the Daily Planet, state Emergency Services Coastal District Administrator Rich Eisner said that the event had been a “unique effort to bring the local community and the county together and prepare for one of the worst possible disasters ever.” 

“We were able to bring our ideas to the table not only at the city level but also at the state level. I want everyone to understand that we are all part of this effort. CItizens need to understand that it is up to them to change the outcome of the [potential] disaster. Everyone should be prepared with food and water for at least 72 hours if they don’t want to end up as victims of the earthquake,” he said.  

Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton said that the main focus was on “preservation of life.”  

He added that “communication would definitely pose a problem” and said that although the communication systems between the city’s fire and police departments were not yet integrated, there were plans to do so in the near future.  

He added that although officers in Berkeley could not communicate with their counterparts in Oakland through radio systems, it was very much on the agenda. The infrastructure to set up something like that would cost the city $60 million. 

Mayor Tom Bates also said that there were plans to address pandemics like the avian flu at a meeting in October but stressed the fact that handling emergency preparedness during a natural disaster was the top priority at the moment.