Labor Day 2028 - A 7.2 Earthquake hits the Hayward Fault, and East Palo Alto - located in a liquefaction zone - is devastated. Multiple aging apartment buildings collapse, and hundreds of people suddenly lose their homes. Many residents have been injured in the earthquake and are desperately looking for medical care. Water is in short supply, and residents are trying to figure out how to purify groundwater. The earthquake severely damaged water and sewage pipes built 70+ years ago, and it is not known when repairs will be made. Requests for outside help are ignored, and adjacent communities that usually help in times of trouble are taking care of their own people before giving EPA scarce resources. Electricity is out for an unknown amount of time, and generators are few and far between. Tempers are flaring and people are hungry, thirsty, and in great distress. City Staff is nowhere to be found - the earthquake happened over the Labor Day weekend and the City Manager, Police Chief, Public Works Director, and other senior leaders are all on vacation. Junior members of staff have not been trained in emergency response, and newer members of staff have no idea what to do or where to look for supplies. The State and Federal government promise to help, but FEMA’s response will be delayed a few weeks due to a hurricane in Alabama. Public Safety is an issue, and there have been multiple instance of looting. Police are overwhelmed, and many are not even showing up to work as they live far from EPA. East Palo Alto residents are very angry, and asking "why were we not prepared for an earthquake?"
East Palo Alto will be hit by a major earthquake in the next 25 years. Are we ready for a major natural disaster like this in EPA? All signs point to “no.” The closest most residents come to thinking about earthquakes is when Daddy Yankee is on the radio, and this is - sadly - not going to help one bit when the Bay Area is again hit by a major earthquake.
East Palo Alto is close to many fault lines. "The San Francisco Bay Area is transected by a series of subparallel faults that together accommodate the relative motion between the Pacific and North American plates. The San Andreas Fault and 6 other significant fault zones are present in the Bay Area: the Calaveras, Concord-Green Valley, Greenville, Hayward, Rodgers Creek, and San Gregorio Faults."
When a major earthquake happens, I do not thing we cannot count on Menlo Park, Redwood City, Palo Alto, or other local communities to help EPA get back on track - they will be responding to damage in their own communities. FEMA, The County of San Mateo, and the State of California will undoubtedly prioritize other cities ahead of EPA – as they always do. East Palo Alto will need to be prepared to respond to the earthquake on our own, and we can not wait for other people to save us.
I have a lot of questions around our emergency response:
· Water – how will an earthquake affect our water supply? Will Hetch Hetchy reservoirs be offline? Will our groundwater reserve function? Do we need to have a supply of water purification equipment and supplies on hand?
· Food – how will we feed our population if there is a natural catastrophe? Has there been any thought or preparation for this in East Palo Alto?
· Electricity/Power – Does the city have backup generators, gas tanks, batteries, and other supplies to power the response? How will we deal with power being out for possibly weeks?
· Public Safety – What effect will losing an earthquake have on policing? Will looting be an issue? Will police officers who live out of town be able to respond to an earthquake or will they be busy in their own communities?
· Housing – what percentage of housing in EPA will be irreparably damaged by an earthquake and uninhabitable? What is the plan to temporarily house residents? What are we doing to fix housing before an earthquake instead of after it happens?
· Who on city staff leads emergency response? Is city staff dedicating at least one day a year to emergency preparedness and training? Do we have a robust plan that accounts for senior leaders being on vacation during an emergency like just happened over New Years? An earthquake does not care if it is a holiday, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or other major holidays. What is the city budgeting for emergency preparedness and response?
· Communication – Does the city have boilerplate messages to send out in English and Spanish when an earthquake hits? Have we distributed standard information on “what to do” in the community now in order to get people ready? Are communication channels on social media, text, and email primed to go and ready to send out information the minute an earthquake hits? If the internet is not working, what plan is there to communicate with residents in lieu of email/text/social media? East Palo Alto is over 60% Hispanic - has there been any effort to organize the Spanish language community in EPA around emergency preparedness? Have we identified in advance households with senior citizens who may need additional help and resources?
· Infrastructure – Will our aging water and sewage pipes withstand a major earthquake? How long will it take to get our water/electricity/sewage back working if this happens? What are we doing to replace this aging infrastructure before an earthquake?
· Medical response – Do we have resources in EPA do respond to a large casualty event? If Stanford Hospital and other local clinics are overwhelmed with other communities’ casualties, do we have the capability to respond with people trained in first aid? Have we identified community members who are trained in first aid or are medical professionals? Do we have a reserve of bandages, medicine, splints, and other medical supplies on hand to deal with large scale casualties?
· CERT group – is our local CERT group properly activated? I have lived in EPA since 2009 and have seen very limited actions by our CERT group. What can we do to recruit more people to this group and have them prepared for an emergency?
Personally, I am trying to make sure I have emergency supplies of water and food on hand for my family and pets. I am enrolled to get trained by CERT next month, and will take a 3 day course on emergency preparedness. I also purchased an electrical generator a few years ago, and have a store of camping gear that would be helpful if our home became uninhabitable after an earthquake.
Becoming prepared individually is important, but it is also important that the City of East Palo Alto has a well thought out plan to meet the challenges before an earthquake. We do not want to regret that we were truly unprepared when "The Big One" very predictably hits.