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Shake, rattle, roll ... and be prepared

March 19, 2011

Evidence of the power beneath us. A man peers into a 60-foot-deep, earthquake-generated fissure west of Mammoth Lakes. Photo/www.cherylhogan.com

Are we ready? It’s hard not to ask that question, watching the destruction, fear and grief facing Japan.

Deep down, Mammoth holds a large and uncomfortable resemblance to that island country, although the surfaces of the two areas couldn’t be more different.

Unstable bedrock, an unquiet volcanic past; more than many places in the country, the Eastern Sierra shares a certain geological kinship with Japan. All that’s missing is the sea – and many millions of people.

But a big quake? Sure. A volcano? Sure. Both are inevitable, scientists tell us. Someday.

So it begs the question again. Are we ready for something really big here in the Eastern Sierra?

The bottom line is, of course, no. No one, no community, can ever be fully ready for such a disaster. If they were, it would be all they ever did, all they ever spent time and money and effort on. There would be no time or resources for anything else.

But given that that’s not what the Eastside has chosen to do, it still begs the question of how ready are we.

Living on the edge of an active and huge magma chamber, living regularly with earthquakes, hot springs and seeping carbon monoxide tree kills, has given us perhaps a small edge in being ready for a possible disaster. It’s a rare local – a veteran of snowstorms, road closures and quake scares – who doesn’t have a well-stocked emergency kit in car or house, who doesn’t have at least some food, water or blankets close by.

That’s an edge.

Then there’s the fact that the weird and unstable Eastern Sierra geology is the site of geologists, volcanologists and scientists. We even have our own United States Geological Survey scientist assigned to the area, with her 24/7 pager set to alert her every time the Eastside kicks out anything bigger than a 3.0 earthquake.

That’s an edge.

All that said, the answer to the question is complicated.

Are we more ready than we were 20 years ago, in the 1980s, when the cumulative fear after two years of rocking and rolling earthquakes threatened to empty out the town and made real estate prices plummet?
Absolutely, as the below information reveals.

But could we be more ready?

Absolutely.

Here’s a look at some of the basics of local disaster readiness, assuming the disaster is big enough to transcend the borders of the town of Mammoth Lakes and is county wide, at minimum.

What happens
after disaster strikes

Nationwide, emergency response procedures over time have evolved into something called the Incident Command System, based not so loosely on the way the U.S. Forest Service fights its wildfires.

A strict hierarchy of command, with each player assigned very specific duties and precise line of responsibility characterizes the system. The final “buck stops here” in the system is called the “Incident Commander” or IC.

The heads of all Mono County’s schools, hospitals, fire departments, federal land managers, the LADWP – all local agencies – are part of what is called a “Unified Command” group. This group brings together the leaders, or ICs, of all these agencies every three months for reviews and training. In fact, it met just this past week to train, to review scenarios, to identify problems and weaknesses.

The group also stages on-the-ground training exercises several times a year.

The Players and their jobs:

• Mono County Sheriff’s Department The sheriff’s department is the eye of the storm when it comes to an emergency that transcends the Town of Mammoth Lakes borders. Mono County Sergeant Jeff Beard is the emergency services coordinator for the entire county, including Mammoth.
One of the first things he does after being notified of a sizable disaster is to create a Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

The center, located in a pre-identified self-sufficient building or room in Mammoth and/or Bridgeport, houses communications equipment, backup emergency power sources and basic emergency supplies for responders and workers.

From this EOC, Beard coordinates with the rest of the agencies in the county and beyond, should it be necessary.

Sheriff Rick Scholl is Beard’s boss. He says the county is far more ready for an emergency than it was a few short years ago. First, the county now has a communications system that is “inter-operable,” meaning the county can talk to every other agency out there, from the state down to the forest service. That capacity is courtesy of a grant from Homeland Security, he said.

Second, a lot of the bugs in the Eastside’s fragile 911 system have been worked out recently, with automatic redundancies built in now, even if a cable is cut. “The calls get routed automatically to Alpine or other dispatch centers and it is working extremely well,” he said.

• Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Dan Watson is now the emergency services coordinator for the Town of Mammoth Lakes, after the Town eliminated that position last year. The new interim Town manager will also work with Watson.

Watson said the first thing he does in a disaster is to get to the station if possible, then begin calling out enough officers to respond, while being sure to leave some off-duty so he has a staff for the next 16-hour shift.

He then sends out officers to do on-the-ground assessments, while responding to emergencies.
Patrol cars are equipped with enough communications equipment and digital data technologies to make officers very self sufficient, enabling them to set up “a pretty good office “from the back of a patrol car,” he said, another change from a decade ago when officers were highly reliant on their station or dispatch only for data.

• U.S. Geological Survey The USGS has an extensive office in Menlo Park, as well as field offices staffed by scientists here in Mono County. Long Valley Scientist-in-Charge Margaret Mangen took over the job when Dave Hill, a long familiar face of the USGS, retired several years ago. The Menlo office monitors the Eastside’s every burble and quake, watching for possible volcanic activity as well as unrelated quakes.
Mangen carries a pager with her at every moment and is alerted as soon as an earthquake hits the 3.0 or higher level. She provides scientific and technical assistance during any geologically related emergency.

“Our goal is to be able to identify whether the quake you felt is of volcanic origin within a few minutes,” she said. “We have a high degree of accuracy of being able to do this.”

This is critical, as quakes caused by volcanic activity can presage volcanic eruptions. The data Mangen collects is what could give residents time to evacuate the area. Mangen’s data also maps the shape of a quake, giving responders and idea where the damage is likely to be most severe.

n Mammoth Lakes Fire Department Chief Brent Harper is the first line of defense during an emergency in Mammoth that involves fire or other structure damage.

• Mono County Public Health Department Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Rick Johnson is the Unified Command group’s first line of defense, should the emergency be a medical one, such as an epidemic or illness.

• County Paramedics Ambulances are located in several communities in the county. The paramedics’ boss is the county sheriff’s department.

• Volunteers such as search and rescue, firefighters, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), etc. The Eastside is too small to have an extensive network of firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders. The vast majority of the responders are volunteers, with various degrees of training and background.

• Regional, state, national resources The Incident Commend system noted previously functions all the way up to state and national emergencies, Mono County Sheriff Rick School said. As the emergency expands in scope, Beard would call the several-county regional emergency coordinator in San Bernadino, who would in turn contact state resources, who in turn contact national resources if so needed.

• You Perhaps the most overlooked yet critical arm of the emergency response system is residents themselves. Chief of Police Dan Watson put it this way.

“Every person should be prepared to be able to survive for five days with zero help from authorities.”
It’s that simple.

So, like Japan, Eastside residents know that it’s only a matter of time before something unstable beneath our feet gives way, and we have chosen to live here in spite of that fact.

Water, food, water purification tablets, fuel, sleeping bags, tools, batteries, emergency radio, pet food, medicines, emergency plans for your family.

Are you ready for five days without any help?

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