F – Earthquake or Hurricane: It All Happens in the First Three Minutes

Then, if you are lucky, the first three hours.  Then, according to FEMA, you will need to be prepared to be “on your own” for the first three days.  In private, from the beginning, emergency managers have said it is really the first three weeks.  In the Far Rockaway, Stanton Island, parts of Manhattan, New Jersey – where I visited before writing, they are still counting.  Even as they are recovering, not entirely alone, they still know the gaps in the emergency services and safety net leave them with holes in the fabric of their life that continue to threaten their safety and their future.

An emergency manager once said to me that preparedness is measured in your status the minute before and the minute after the earthquake (or hurricane, or explosion, or shots fired.)

In fact, since we coordinated the first Neighborhood Disaster Drill – “The Great Peninsula Earthquake of August 31, 2009” – we now know in detail the tragic outcomes that will occur when you are “on your own.”   This Drill was conducted as part of the Disaster Preparedness, Response, Recovery (DPRR) project, one outcome of the design of Regional Clergy Engagement, initiated by the Peninsula Community Foundation.  I directed the initial Foundation pilot and the related series of projects, including the DPRR project.

The Neighborhood Disaster Drill consisted of “yellow taping” a three block area on a Sunday afternoon.  Prior to the Drill, the residents of each home were given the option of participating in the Drill.  Approximately 50% of the residents agreed.  From that point on, they received no further information, than to be in their homes at 2:00 pm the afternoon of the drill.  The participants in “The Great Peninsula Earthquake of August 31, 2009”had no extra preparation other then what steps they might have put in place prior to the point when they were recruited.

The DPPR project Agency Representative Team and Congregation Representative Team shared in the design of the Drill.  There were no emergency agencies from the Agency Representative Team on site at the time of the Drill.  Residents were on their own.

This was, and still is, the only drill in the nation which has been conducted to observe randomly recruited individuals “on your own” through scenarios individually tailored for each home and family.  These scenarios were based on several neighborhood walk-throughs which I conducted as the project director, along with the project coordinator, to learn about the homes and residents.

There are vast arrays of circumstances which can befall anyone in each minute of the first three hours that can only be remedied with assistance.  It was only through the “invisible” monitors and the post incident data of that August 31, 2009, Neighborhood Disaster Drill that much of what happens “on your own” is now known.  It is the assessment of that data that has resulted in a capacity for pre-incident modification of the assumptions held since the post Katrina insertion of “on your own” as a core component of national policy.

Since Katrina, a lingo has infused our FEMA vocabulary based on assessment of, or at least reaction to, the Katrina experience: first responders, CERT (citizen’s emergency response team), spontaneous “volunteers.”  These terms are defined, or redefined, in a revised system of emergency response.  Components of this amended vocabulary suggest emerging theories for protocols to reduce the threat to life when you are “on your own.”

From the outset, we acknowledged the need for a capacity to respond to the victims which is not emergency agency dependent.  Disasters limit and focus the resources of police, fire, offices of emergency services and the state and federal emergency management agencies.  In the minute after the disaster, these professionals and their assets will be reduced, as they too will be victims.  Lost lives, the transportation barriers to reporting in, the damage to sites and equipment, will all limit response.  Somewhere there will be an epicenter, and that is where the available resources will be aggregated for the most immediate intervention.  In the short run, or the long run, assessment and the flow of command will re-deploy assets as available.

The vast majority of the people in either the significant incidents, the ones preparedness is designed for, and the limited incidents, will be “on your own.”

There are critical limitations in what has been framed to guide “on your own.”  First, the lack of the framework to support “on your own” leaves a significant unaddressed gap, not unlike the pre-Katrina assumption that calling 911 would result in a fire engine on your street.

Second, there had been no data obtained from any drill which observed individuals “on your own.”   Across every geographically impacted region, individuals are going to be struggling to mitigate the personal impact of injury, structural collapse, flood, fire and ironically, the lack of water and heat for warmth and cooking.

For the Drill, residents were, as agreed, at home on that Sunday afternoon when they received a reverse 911 phone call that an earthquake had occurred.  The caller instructed them to respond to the scenario which they would find in an envelope which had been taped to their front door.

As the Drill proceeded, individuals were able to immediately find support with the innovation of a system of adjacent congregations designated in neighborhood as the “Neighborhood Response Center (NRC)” and “Neighborhood Shelter (NS).”

The most immediate insight into the limits of “on your own” occurred during one preliminary walk- through.  At two homes, I met single seniors in their 80’s living alone.  When I walked away from the first of these two homes, I shared with the project coordinator how personally troubled I was.  I knew that all the preparation of water, food, flashlights, etc. would not be sufficient for these individuals to be “on your own” for minutes and hours, let alone the three days projections.

The scenarios for both those residents’ homes were written to test the viability of the presumed “spontaneous” neighborhood support and CERT support.  The results, as observed by the monitors, were catastrophic.

Fortunately, as a Drill, the multiple gaps and resulting catastrophes were observed, not lived.  As a designed Drill, the value we could achieve came quickly and significantly, in the home to home assessment during each pre-drill walk-through and in the project’s monitors on the street observing individual reactions to the specific drill scenarios.

These insights translated into the formation of a manageable Plan by which we can provide residents with pre-incident, block based, neighbor coordinated protocols.  This Plan addresses the specific limits apparent in virtually every scenario.  This included scenarios designed to mirror the most commonly held perception of responses which would be “normal” or reflect “spontaneous heroism.”  Responses did not translate into the anticipated support, but could be improved, in a pre-incident prep process, to achieve that support.

In addition to the coordination of the initial neighbor based support, the Plan further supports individuals with the resources aggregated in the pre-incident designated Neighborhood Response Centers.  These Centers are located in the core congregations, now working collectively within the designed relationship with Office of Emergency Services, but without their presence at the time of the incident.

A significant number of innovations incorporated in the Plan to shift “on your own” to “part of a collective,” came from three debriefings held in the weeks following the Neighborhood Disaster Drill.  This multiple debriefings reflect the interrelationship between, (a) the residents who participated in the drill, who reconvened to debrief at their Neighborhood Response Center, (b) community institutional resources, represented by the project’s core and support congregations and civic organizations like Rotary, and (c) city/county emergency management agencies, policy, fire, office of emergency services (OES), citizens emergency response team (CERT) coordinators, those project partners who had shared in the design of the drill, but were not active in the drill.

The analysis of the data from the drill and debriefing was incorporated into the Plan by the Project’s ART (Agency Representative Team) and CRT (Congregation Representative Team). This further achieved a Plan which benefits from the insights and vision of those who were recognized as having the greatest subject expertise: the ART, in emergency response and the CRT, in neighborhood congregations assets and strategy options.

Post Script – Hurricane Sandy:  Writing this in December of 2012, I am able to reflect on ongoing input from “eyes on the ground” in New York, months following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy – NOT a drill.  One dominant theme is the impact of the lack of relationship which has fragmented communication and coordination between the individuals who responded in vast numbers and the professionals associated with the emergency management agencies.  These first hand reports confirm that there is little doubt that the people in these two contingents acted with the greatest personal conviction and dedication.  In this incident, there was some extended range of coordination through Occupy Wall Street’s Occupy Sandy mobilization. The expressed limits of these efforts, official and unofficial, to the benefit of victims, was the lack of designed pre-incident relationships to capitalize on a collaborative process to maximize relief in each impacted area.   What served the Occupy Sandy “spontaneous” response was the long and narrow shape of the Island, so the response could be easily delineated into sections.  The question I hear over and over again, how could this be replicated.  By that time, I know that the DPRR components of the ARP and CRP replicated the existing “spontaneous” coordination, which came from the Occupy Movement team and that the  cluster mapping afford the pre-delineated sections of a normal region.

I have full confidence that the data from the Disaster Preparedness, Response, Recovery (DPRR) pilot project, the Neighborhood Disaster Drill, the DPRR phase II county pilot, and from Hurricane Sandy, all substantiate the need for an enhanced pre-incident plan which serves individual support in the first three hours with neighbor based Response Centers and Evacuation Centers, to provide systemic relief by cluster.

This is exactly the Plan which is now available, based on this five year design of components and methodology.

Special Note: My reflection on the personally enriching experience of working for five years with San Mateo County OES and Red Cross, three years with the Redwood City Fire and Police Departments and many months with the residents of Redwood City.

It was a unique experience of street based civic engagement that occurred during the several weeks which encompassed the recruitment, staging and debriefing from the Neighborhood Disaster Drill.  This included the relationships formed during (1) the two street corner gatherings of neighbors to announce that they were needed for the first ever Neighborhood Disaster Drill (the first gathering around the attraction of the fire engine and firefighters from their nearby fire station #10), (2) walking the three blocks, just encountering individuals during each five pre-drill walk throughs, (3) experiencing the shared trauma (them doing and me watching) during anxious moments in response to what were and seemed like very real possibilities lived during that “drill,” and (4) during the debriefings.

I drive through that neighborhood on occasion.   I am still heartened by the value of their investment in the experience and who they are as a varied, diverse group of people.  They were not volunteers who came forward, they were people who modeled community service.  All of us share daily in what life brings, including tasks which are a function of living collectively and collaboratively.  When I experience my next earthquake (born in Los Angeles, growing up in Palm Springs, living in the San Francisco Bay Area), I would want it to be on one of those three streets.  I will also know that wherever I am, there will be the colleagues of the professionals who shared in this project and who I trained with at the California State Training Institute.  These are the people of OES and local fire fighters, police and Red Cross, who are doing their job and will be showing up wherever I am, as soon as circumstances allow them.

The personal dedication and professional knowledge of the fire, police, Red Cross and OES was evident in some way in every meeting and conversation.  I think the most revealing statement of that dedication and awareness of the realities of actual incidents was expressed in the sentiment of the fire fighters of Station #10.  They came that Sunday to bring out the residents in the proposed Neighborhood Disaster Drill area.  I know from knocking on their doors the week before, they do not usually come out to gather on their street.  One firefighter shared with me their appreciation of what was happening. “We know that the probability is that we will be initially called away to Gilroy or San Francisco or Fresno and these individuals will have to be very much “on your own” and “on your own” is no way to face a disaster, of any size, for any amount of time.”

Disaster Preparedness, Response, Recovery Project


Rabbi Jay Miller    Religion Sector 3.0

1.0  On the Town Square         2.0  Walls of Separation
3.0  Alignment: Among Congregations – Within Society

jaymiller@blueconnect.org      650.740.4411