BL Special Report

BL Special Report: County prepares for disasters, from earthquakes to power grid failure

The San Benito County’s Office of Emergency Services has plans for most emergencies, but says residents also need to have plans to survive the initial days or weeks following a disaster.
Kris Mangano said the county OES has written plans for every emergency scenario, from earthquakes to power failures. Photo by John Chadwell.
David Westrick said people should have three weeks worth of emergency supplies. Photo by John Chadwell.
Search and Rescue volunteers will be a part of most emergencies that impact the county. Photo by John Chadwell.
Another practice drill. Photo provided by OES.
Another practice drill. Photo provided by OES.
Active-shooter drills are just one scenario various local agencies practice. Photo by John Chadwell.
All emergency agencies come together for drills to be prepared for the real disasters. Photo by John Chadwell.

When it comes to preparing for a disaster, there is one situation that vexes the San Benito County Office of Emergency Services (OES) more than some of the others. That is a regional, long-term electrical blackout. Several types of emergencies could cause this situation but earthquakes are most likely at the top of the list of what San Benito County residents should be thinking ahead about. There are five fault zones running through the county: the Calaveras, San Andreas, Tres Pinos, Quien Sabe and Bradley.

The San Benito County Office of Emergency Services (OES), located at 471 Fourth Street in Hollister, is prepared, theoretically, to plan for and respond to earthquakes and other disasters. The hard truth is there is no way the four OES staff members can anticipate everything that could go wrong in a disaster situation.  

Every day there are thousands of power failures throughout California, according to PowerOutage, which tracks customer outages among state utilities. Some last seconds or a few minutes; some much longer. Hollister experienced two such early-morning outages in the last few weeks that went all but unnoticed by the public. These outages can be caused by too much demand overloading a portion of the grid, or a tree branch falling on a powerline, as happened in Gilroy on Aug. 30 and shut down Gavilan College for a day. Lately, some have been linked to PG&E equipment that have caused California wildfires, including the Dixie fire, the largest in state history.

Most people take electricity for granted, until it shuts off. If a large part of the grid fails, everything powered by electricity simply stops working.

“The financial system, sewer and water lines, transportation networks, computers, cell phones, kitchen appliances, and more run on electricity. Several hours of disrupted power can grind economic activity to a halt in the affected areas. An outage of days or weeks could incite greater unrest,” according to Hafid Elabdellaoui, Microsoft’s Chief Security Advisor in a February 2020  Microsoft study.

County OES believes it’s prepared for long-term disasters

Kris Mangano, manager of the county OES, and David Westrick, San Benito County public information officer and former Hollister Police chief, are optimistic about the county’s preparedness, but caution that residents also need to be ready because even with a plan in place for every eventuality, no one really knows all that could go wrong.

“We plan for all hazards,” Mangano said. “We do have specific plans for power outages. We have written plans and we’re not just flying by the seat of our pants.”

But Westrick added, “If we’re talking about a zombie apocalyptic scenario, nobody knows what would happen.” 

Westrick said the biggest issue is keeping infrastructure up-and-running to sustain vital services which OES considers—water, sewage and landlines. He said the main county buildings have backup generators, but they need fuel to keep running, which is another problem, Westrick said because even the pumps at the fuel tanks need electricity to operate. 

“We’ll probably have to manually pump the gas at some point,” Westrick said.

Mangano said, however, it is impossible to have enough fuel on hand for more than a couple weeks.

“We have an airport where we could land large planes and helicopters to get resources if we need to bring them in,” she said. “We have multiple ways into town if we have to truck in resources, assuming our infrastructure is stable. We’ve planned for those to the best of our ability, but we thought we had planned for COVID or a type of pandemic. We never planned for a year and a half.”

She said no matter how much planning takes place, it often comes down to “trial-by-error.”

“We do have plans in place on what we will do, who we contact, how we will go about getting things we need to continue as a government entity,” she said, adding that, in a widespread blackout, everyone would be competing for resources. “We won’t have the National Guard or statewide resources. We’re an island and we need to respond that way. Getting resources is going to be very tough.”

Westrick said everyone needs to understand it may take several days or weeks before help arrives from outside the county.  

“We have to be prepared for the long haul,” he said, “but we know where to go because we practice.”

If power remains out and homes become uninhabitable, evacuations could be called for.

“We have shelter plans to use Bolado Park (Tres Pinos),” Mangano said. “We have a National Guard armory. We have pre-established agreements with the Elks Lodge, with the Veterans Building, Veterans Park (Hollister) and Hollister Hills (Cienega Road), to use those sites for housing if people couldn’t live in their homes. We have a community of about 100 volunteers until we can get resources here.”

“The key is to help yourself first and then your neighbors,” she added.

Water and sanitation

At the top of the must-have list of necessities to survive any disaster is clean water and sanitation service. If a community does not have backup generators these will fail instantly.

When the water stops coming into homes it also means that toilets stop working, and that’s when serious health problems begin. Initially, the lack of water and sewage will be the primary cause of sickness and deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The water districts do have backup generators, but they only have enough fuel for two and a half days before needing to be refueled, said Jeff Cattaneo, general manager of San Benito County Water District.  

Food

Americans have already experienced empty shelves due to COVID-19 and panic buying. Should there be a long-term regional power failure, the supply chain could break down as food producers and distributors are impacted. Again, store shelves will be empty either through panic buying or looting.

Since fresh food that needs to be kept refrigerated will not be an option unless local grocery stores have generators and the supply chain has not collapsed, canned or freeze-dried foods are the main sources for emergency storage. Freeze-dried foods or even military meals ready to eat (MREs) can be stored for years.

There are two emergency scenarios to keep in mind when determining how much food one should have on hand. For short-term emergencies food storage should include 15 to 30 days’ worth of food and clean water. Typically, according to the Red Cross, these supplies should include basics such as rice, beans, canned meats, canned fruit, oatmeal, honey, protein bars, crackers, peanut butter and vitamins.

Long-term emergencies would be three or more months. In addition to the supplies for short-term emergencies, the list would also include flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda, yeast, lard, dehydrated milk, vegetable oil, cereal, popcorn, lentils, seasoning and bouillon broth cubes.

This does not include the food and water already in the pantry. Rather, this preparedness supply is stored away in a place that will not be used unless there is an emergency.

Health care

In addition to food and water for people and pets, medications, supplements and first-aid supplies need to be included. If someone in the household is on a ventilator it is important to have a backup generator and enough fuel to keep it going for several weeks.

Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital could be quickly overburdened and perhaps even evacuated.

“With our hospital, when we’re full we don’t have another hospital down the road that we can send people to,” Mangano said. “We have backup plans for alternate sites for the hospital to accommodate thousands of additional patients. It’s like setting up a MASH unit [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] and we have the Red Cross that already has stuff pre-staged in communities.”

Frankie Gallagher, director of marketing and community relations for Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, told BenitoLink the hospital has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local agencies to receive hospital patients and/or skilled nursing facility residents if evacuations are necessary. 

“It depends on the type of incident that determines where patients would be disbursed to,” she said. “We have multiple generators along with back-up generators on campus with fuel for at least 96 hours and the capability to power all facilities. We have MOUs with our generator company to provide additional generators, fuel and manpower in the event of a long-term power outage.” 

Communications

If the grid goes down so too do the cell towers. Landlines, if connected to actual wires rather than through the internet, will continue to work, but few people today have landlines. Hollister emergency personnel will have satellite phones, walkie talkies and ham radios, but without cell phones it will be nearly impossible to communicate with the population.

“We’ll use town criers to get the word out. You just do what you have to do,” Westrick said.

Zombie apocalypse

Mangano described San Benito County as an island that is a bedroom community that is isolated and with only three main roads, Highways. 25, 156 and 152. There are, though, lesser known roads that Westrick called the secret way out of town, 25 running through South County and Panoche Road, a narrow, steep, rough road that turns off Hwy. 25 South and can eventually connect to Hwy. 5.

Westrick recommended part of every family’s emergency plan is to have a pre-arranged rendezvous point where they can meet up. He said it could be a park or even a certain street corner.

“We’re a bedroom community. Children may be in school, and parents aren’t here,” Mangano said. “We’ve planned with the schools to have supplies for three days to keep children safe at the schools.”

In a worst-case scenario, where large cities are in chaos and people are trying to escape into the countryside, the EOS emergency plan includes isolating the county from the outside world.

“We would probably do roadblocks to avoid the looting and rioting,” she said. “We would be checking IDs to determine if they’re residents or not.”

 

Basic Disaster Supplies Kit from ready.gov website

Assemble your kit store items in airtight plastic bags and put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry containers such as plastic bins or a duffel bag.

A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day for several days, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Food (at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food)
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Dust mask (to help filter contaminated air)
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
  • Wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
  • Manual can opener (for food)
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]