Cassandra Calling: Will the City Listen?

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-In the event of a real emergency, one that will not last days but weeks or months or longer, the city will need to provide Angelenos with food, water, power, medical resources, shelter, sanitation, communications and transportation.

Most importantly, the city will need to coordinate the delivery of these services with its many departments and with LA County. 

Los Angeles needs to reevaluate its priorities with regard to how well it can weather a catastrophe. 

To double the Emergency Management Department’s budget would take $1 per person, more than most people spend on coffee or the lottery in a week, and would be preferable to the stockpiles of swag that Neighborhood Councils and Council District field offices give out – items that just add to our landfills. 

While people die year after year in fires and floods, following 9/11 our city executives bought into Homeland Security’s my-toys-are-bigger-than-your-toys game in which millions of taxpayer dollars at all levels of government were spent on military hardware to protect against what, for most people, would be a never-in-their-lifetime event. 

FEMA, at the federal level, falls under the Department of Homeland Security and must compete for funds against other Washington priorities such as border wall construction, an additional 54,000 beds to detain illegal immigrants, modernizing the Coast Guard, beefing up the Secret Service and providing security to presidential candidates and their families. 

Has anything been done? 

Los Angeles established its Emergency Management Department to coordinate efforts within the city -- a huge area comprised of many densely populated neighborhoods divided by mountains, fault lines, arroyos and freeways -- in the event of fire, floods, earthquakes, terrorism, and riots. 

The Emergency Management Department has an amazing coordination center for all city departments including the LADWP and Harbor as well as representatives from the County and State. 

They have lots of plans. But will they work? 

Disaster preparedness exercises have helped reveal problem areas but when an actual event occurs, the Emergency Management Department will be facing not only the stress of “this time it’s for real,” but the reality that it’s rare for one emergency to exist in isolation. Usually there is a cascade of crises tying up multiple resources across many locations. 

The questions 

What if Los Angeles was to be the epicenter of the next Coronavirus outbreak? How would quarantines be established and enforced? 

Hospitals would be overwhelmed in many emergencies; how will the city ensure backup services and getting doctors and medical supplies to where they are needed? 

Why hasn’t the city upgraded and hardened its infrastructure – roads, power grid, water and sewage – to better withstand earthquakes, fire and flood? 

Are our water supplies secure? What are the plans if they are cut off, or contaminated, either accidentally or deliberately? 

How are first responders to overcome the barriers and bottlenecks created by the mountains, fault lines, arroyos and freeways that crisscross Los Angeles? 

How will power be provided for first responders, medical facilities, and civilians dependent on electrically-powered devices to live? What redundancies and workarounds have been developed if the grid is compromised? 

What about emergency communications – between first responders, broadcasting to Angelenos, calling in outside resources? 

What plans have been made to provide necessities to civilians as well as emergency workers if days turn into weeks? 

Firemen and police will be front and center in the initial days as they were for the Woolsey fire and the Rodney King riots, but what about the weeks and months following a major emergency? The sheer size of the city and its geographical challenges will spread existing resources far too thin. 

What is needed? 

The preemptive power shut offs by PG&E last fall to limit their liability in case of another Paradise Fire, led to the death of a man dependent on oxygen support. Millions were left in the dark both literally and figuratively. Lack of communication from the power companies was further compounded when cell towers failed. 

LA County’s recently released After Action Review of the Woolsey Fire Incident sets out many steps that the County, City, various agencies, community groups, homeowners, and individual residents can take to upgrade the effectiveness of responses next time. And there will be a next time.  

First and foremost, there needs to be consistent, clear, and more timely communications to residents and between agencies. In July, Los Angeles residents jolted by the Ridgecrest earthquakes received no information for three days. However, notifications for the Sepulveda and Getty Fires showed significant improvement first in promptness and then in specifics. 

Evacuation strategies must plan for all considerations including combinations of factors – both the Northridge earthquake and the fatal Paradise Fire in northern California blocked major roads. 

Loss of power to parts, or all, of the city will be a component of most disasters (wind, fire, earthquake) with some of the least visible Angelenos being the most severely impacted. Establishing a database now to track people on life support, the disabled, seniors living alone, and those with young children and no access to transportation must be a priority. 

Los Angeles cannot act in a vacuum. Fires and other disasters do not pay attention to county and city boundaries, and response must be seamlessly coordinated between jurisdictions. 

Earthquakes and fires can lead to tsunamis and mudslides which will impact water supplies, create transportation bottlenecks and affect medical responders and equipment. Plans should not be made in isolation: the type of emergency, the populations affected and the agencies providing assistance must all be taken into consideration to ensure proper coordination. 

The Emergency Management Department needs to develop teams with links in the local communities and surrounding jurisdictions to focus on area-specific concerns – refinery-related problems in the port area, tsunamis and liquefaction along the coast, rockslides and bottlenecks in the hills, as well as overviews of pan-city specific problems such as potable water, food and fuel for four million plus people, evacuation procedures, disease and quarantine, and communications. 

Major disasters have tripled in the last 50 years and, with climate change, we can expect them to become more frequent and more intense. 

AFTER a major event is too late to plan, too late to staff up, and too late to answer to the people of Los Angeles. 

The Emergency Management Department is currently undervalued, underfinanced and understaffed. It has good people and good plans but currently lacks the resources to implement them. 

Isn’t it worth a cup of coffee to put them on the road to protecting our future? 

The previous column looked at what the city could face in more detail. The next article will address what you, your families and your neighbors can do – after which you may want to contact your Councilmember.


(The Budget Advocates are an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.