Memoir of a Public Information Officer: When an Earthquakes Strikes: The First Five Days
On Thursday the 15th of last month, at 7:31 A.M., an earthquake of 5.9 Moment Magnitude struck Southern California. The epicenter was near Santa Clarita, a small suburban community about twenty miles north of Los Angeles along the I-5 freeway. I am the Public Information Officer for the Emergency Response Office for the City of Santa Clarita. The following is an account of the five days following that earthquake.
I was attending a breakfast meeting with City and County officials discussing items in the proposed budget for our Emergency Response Office. Over danishes, bagels, coffee, and juice, we were itemized the needs required by my office. The main sticking point was the cost to training more CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) graduates. It is an 18-hour course taught by U.S. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Our goal is to bring the level of individuals trained from 100 per year to 150. The meeting was in a conference room at City Hall, about two blocks from my office, which is inside Police and Fire Headquarters. With an earthquake, it's the roar you hear first before the ground beneath you begins to quake -- a sound that reaches your ears perhaps a second before the tremor. It struck at 7:31 A.M., lasting several seconds. A quake for that duration tells me that things are going to be bad. We stood in a darken room with the emergency lights illuminated. I excused myself and departed. The first day of any disaster requires the immediate assembly of Emergency Response personnel to begin assessment of damages, coordination between the various agencies that will be involved (police, fire, medical) -- City, County, and State -- and the distribution of information to the public as quickly as accurately as feasible. By the time I reached my office I was told the news that an earthquake struck at 7:31 A.M. this morning, about fifteen miles from the center of town, in a rural area, lasting about fifteen seconds at a 5.9 Moment Magnitude, some sixteen miles down beneath the surface. In my office is an Emergency Alert System terminal. This warning activation system, devised by the Federal Communications Commission, allows authorities to interrupt electronic media's programming and report an emergency. Now that I have some initial figures, I can incorporate them into a pre-written script that essentially is short yet to the point: what has happened, the size of the quake, and what people can do at this time (stay off the roads if all possible so emergency vehicles can have clear access), stay tuned for further information, and be ready for any aftershocks. With clearance from my Emergency Response Manager, I activated the EAS at 7:56 A.M. And read my copy. I knew there would be more to follow that day. Improvisation becomes a way of life in Emergency Response: too many factors and variables to take into account when disaster strikes a community. The first order is to assemble all qualified emergency personnel and work on deploying them effectively: that includes fire, police, sheriffs, marshals, CERT graduates, medical personnel, utility workers, etc. There are a number of reports coming in about fallen structures. Fire and police responding. Hospitals are on alert to receive injuries. We'll soon get more word out via the media that local governments are responding. My job is to have ready reliable data: what's being activated and where's it located; what troubles are there, like loss of utilities and when it'll be reactivated; etc. The media is the best means to spread the news. The main thing to tell people: don't panic. Emergency "management at the locallevel is designed with three priorities: to save lives, to minimize property loss, and to promote community and economic recovery from disasters" (Sylves and Waugh, 107).
It's amazing with the amount of people we place in the field and how much fresh information still drifts in twenty-four hours later. My staff and I have been up for nearly twenty-four hours. That's not unusual. Emergency response begins with a twenty-four clock, staying wide-awake, responding and assessing emergencies and needs. Shortly, a fourth of us will sleep for four hours, wake and another shift will sleep four, etc. With luck, by tonight, we can slowly segue toward a normal routine and send people home for longer sleep periods. The past twenty-four hours has been a constant collecting and dissemination of information. Just as "journalism textbooks suggest, media personnel will ask very specific questions: how many injured? How many dead? How much damage-What are the effects-Local authorities don't want a count or damage estimate: they want to know if everyone is looked after" (ICMA, 95). Most, if not all, of the television stations have returned to normal programming. Part of my job is to set up pertinent news conferences either prior or during normal telecast times. During the first twenty-four hours, we had our first newscast at 11 a.m. And again at 4 p.m. And 9 p.m. These were comprehensive news conferences that fully encompassed what facts we knew, what dangers and problems we were facing, and what the Emergence Response personnel were doing at this time to meet the most immediate needs. It is still too early to provide fully evaluation and extent of damage; at this moment, we were just working at getting a sense of normalcy returned to the community. Coordination is the key. In California alone there are some 800 organizations available that provide disaster relief. So far, it's been working. There are people without homes. Temporary relief and medical shelters have been established. Seventeen have been reported dead. While some major fires in residential neighbors have been extinguished (started through gas line eruptions), rescue crews are currently moving through various wreckage that were once homes and small office buildings to find bodies or survivors.
It appears that have been signs that some of our educational programs in schools and throughout the community have been working: neighborhood watch commanders checking on their neighborhood street, coordinating their finds through field representatives, who then pass the information to the central command. Their reports are our eyes on all the streets so we know where to deploy people best, or to know who is with utilities and who is without.
The main factor Emergency Response personnel can provide is reassurance. People expect the local authorities to respond. The faster we can meet everyone's needs, the better people will react that normalcy will soon return. We do that through re-establishing communications with various neighborhoods, distributing information through all mediums, and display that the community is being reconstituted to its former lifestyle. It's vital to release any anxiety through increased sense of security. Time has passed where people know where they stand: their own self-evaluation has determined what they need to do in their lives. We are lucky to have power restored to 95% capacity at this point. The remaining 5% should be back online later today or tomorrow: three ancient transformers that were due for replacement blew during the earthquake. Witnesses reported sickly-green light arcing from the poles during the earthquake, now nearly forty-eight hours ago. Stories like that becomes part of the news.
Our people are now working twelve-hour shifts: twelve on/twelve off. The regional district office of U.S. FEMA in Pasadena are now deploying more Disaster Assistance Employee personnel to help amplify the pace on determining the status of structures. So far, one hospital and one medical center are red tagged and deemed unsafe; there's a school with two buildings red-tagged, though the gymnasium was quantified safe and is still housing two-hundred-plus displaced people, who are hoping to hear word about their neighborhood and…