Public Comment

Preparing for the Next Big Quake

By Craig Hooper
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:16:00 PM

When the next big quake hits the East Bay, the only backup local first-responders can count on are nearby volunteers.  

In past Bay Area earthquakes, a good proportion of those volunteers were military personnel who lived nearby and did what they could. In the East Bay military volunteers responded after the 1989 Loma Prieta tremor, providing medical care, translation support, search and rescue and firefighting support.  

But today, the military has vanished, and the region is still struggling to recruit a civilian substitute. 

In Oakland, a centerpiece of this effort, “Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies,” or CORE, trains civilian volunteers in basic disaster-preparedness techniques so residents can, in an emergency, rally their neighborhood and bolster overwhelmed first responders. 

CORE got started in 1990, after Loma Prieta and just as the region’s post-Cold War military exodus was getting under way. The CORE program got an additional boost after the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm and has been busy training residents ever since. 

The program is popular, with training sessions overbooked months in advance. But municipal support for CORE is uneven.  

Oakland leaders still hope that after a big emergency, the military will help. The military will help, but the nearest big base, Travis Air Force Base, is forty miles away. The Navy, dispatching ships from San Diego, is a day away in the best of circumstances. The Army will be hard-pressed to fix, open and utilize local airports.  

Military help will be slow to reach Oakland’s overwhelmed first-responders. 

With the military gone, urgent post-earthquake tasks of reporting major emergencies, cataloguing damage, shutting off utilities, providing light search and rescue or basic casualty care have been handed off to local volunteers. These basic, labor-intensive jobs are important and can be done by any neighborhood-based CORE volunteer. 

But CORE volunteers cannot do everything. Armed with nothing more than 20 hours of basic disaster training, an official ID, reflective vest and hard hat, volunteers have little else to offer. 

In contrast, the military, hours after Loma Prieta earthquake, directed Bay-based Navy frigates, the USS Lang and USS Gray, to support the crippled electrical grid, while a local cruiser, the USS Gridley, produced fresh water for a cutoff Treasure Island. A nuclear-powered warship, USS Texas, provided emergency communications, while overhead, Marine Corps helicopters moved heavy equipment, plucked stranded victims from the Bay Bridge and transported the injured from the collapsed I-880 freeway. 

Rather than acknowledge the limitations of this volunteer force, CORE volunteers are being encouraged to fill post-earthquake roles traditionally filled by local military volunteers. Rather than urge a rapid influx of military police or other law-enforcement, Oakland CORE training materiel suggests local volunteers help keep order by organizing neighborhood checkpoints. 

In East Oakland, people get shot for less. 

Oakland officials oversell the volunteer program, trumpeting that 20,000 residents have received CORE disaster training. A closer look at the statistics shows that less than half the trainees still actively participate. 

Only about 2,000 have completed training and hold official credentials. 

Funding is a constant struggle. Budget cuts have shrunk the CORE management to a single overworked staffer, hindering expansion from the tony Montclair and Temescal neighborhoods into high-density, low-income districts. With no money, data management is so primitive the Oakland Office of Emergency Services does not even know where CORE teams are set to operate in the city. 

Basic planning has gone undone. Oakland volunteers are trained to spare overtaxed phone lines by hand-carrying aid requests to local fire stations. According to plan, firefighters or volunteer radio operators will relay that information to city officials. But backup radios, bought years ago, still sit in boxes, undistributed.  

Even worse, Oakland Fire seems set to call every available firefighter out to the field, leaving fire stations unattended and CORE volunteers in the lurch.  

Like the soldiers that ran to help in 1906 and 1989, CORE volunteers will do amazing things. But if left underfunded and stripped of strong municipal-level management, this civic-minded substitute for America’s professional Army is a dangerously hollow force. 



Dr. Craig Hooper, a resident of Oakland, is a CORE volunteer and a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.