Like the majority of American cities with an aging infrastructure and too many years of deferred maintenance, San Francisco would likely be a scary place in the aftermath of a large-scale natural disaster or terrorist attack.
But because the whole Bay Area lives atop a minefield of earthquake faults that could wreak devastation at any moment, San Francisco must constantly stay prepared to cope with the kind of disaster that strikes without warning.
Thus it is serious cause for concern that two separate agencies issued reports this month lambasting The City’s readiness to respond to a major emergency.
A May 15 audit by Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst Harvey Rose targeted the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security, complaining about lack of a detailed citywide plan to recover from a worst-case earthquake.
Mayor Gavin Newsom wasted no time getting out in front of the problem, issuing a 19-point executive directive three days before the official audit was even released. His call "to ensure that emergency preparedness continues to receive the highest priority in this administration" includes requiring all city departments to appoint disaster preparedness coordinators making ongoing updates of planning, training and equipment needs.
On Monday, Newsom also announced the hiring of former San Mateo County emergency communications manager Laura Phillips to oversee OESHS, as well as supervising The City’s 911 telephone operations.
Then, on Thursday, a new report from the civil grand jury widened the accusations of preparedness failure to include the Department of Public Health. Some of the grand jury’s ominous predictions sounded like storylines from a special-effects disaster movie.
Within 30 minutes of a major earthquake or comparable disaster, city hospital services would become overwhelmed and completely break down, according to the grand jury. Victims could not be brought in by helicopter because no local hospital has a landing pad, due to neighbor resistance.
Few hospitals have completed seismic retrofitting, and interagency communications during an emergency would be uncoordinated and overloaded. Broken pipelines would paralyze the water system.
It is actually a good thing that such repeated warnings, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the recent 1906 earthquake centennial, are keeping the spotlight on The City’s need to upgrade to the highest level of disaster preparedness.
In fact, the entire Bay Area governmental network should be consistently working together to maintain regional readiness for the giant quake everybody realizes will arrive sooner or later.