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Safe and Secure


COULD A MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE BE ON THE WAY? A tsunami or wildfire? Al-Qaeda? Would we be ready if something happened tomorrow?

Maybe not. San Diego’s former director of homeland security, Augie Ghio, was working to update the city’s disaster preparedness plan—last revised in 1997—when he tendered his resignation January 6. Updating San Diego’s safety strategy could take the city up to 18 months to complete, regardless of who does the work, says Ghio.

Fred Sainz, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ spokesperson, says that while there was “no lack of confidence” in Ghio’s job performance, a pending “analysis and review” of his former office could lead to staffing cuts or institutional reorganization. Sanders says the city is looking at hiring a public safety director by midyear to oversee police and fire services. It’s likely that person would assume Ghio’s duties, he says, although it’s still possible the city may hire another homeland security director.

While the mayor decides when, or even if, he will replace Ghio, scientists and policy makers say conditions are ripe for a cataclysmic event in San Diego’s immediate future—whether the strike is delivered by terrorists or the forces of nature. Despite the flood of disaster preparedness rhetoric that followed Hurricane Katrina—and government officials’ assertions that San Diego is better prepared than many areas of the country —are policies, plans and training in place to minimize the effects of a major catastrophe here in San Diego?

During Hurricane Katrina, the nation watched as a bureaucratic meltdown left the citizens of New Orleans stranded, exacerbating violence and pandemonium in the aftermath of the Category 5 storm. That chain of command is virtually the same in California as it was in Louisiana. Local officials say, though, our system of alerts is better greased because it’s put into practice more frequently.

In San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders is responsible for declaring a state of emergency. Before Ghio’s departure, his decision would have been based largely on the recommendation of the city’s director of homeland security, who is charged with assessing a given disaster scenario considering input from police, fire officials and other city agencies. To get federal assistance following a disaster, Sanders must file a state-of-emergency request with the director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, who then takes the request to Matt Bettenhausen, director of the California Office of Homeland Security. It is then shipped to the governor, and finally lands on the president’s desk.

“That same hierarchy is how we order resources,” said Ghio, prior to his departure. “We exercise that local and state mutual-aid system and the ordering of resources on a daily basis here . . . Within minutes, the information is passed on to the next level.”

If there is a lag in the chain of command, Sanders says, it’s in Sacramento. “We need to work on expediting that response at the state level,” he says.

But with Ghio’s resignation, and the pending departure of Deborah Steffen, current director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, that local chain of command will require serious patchwork.

Over the past three years, the county got about $60 million in homeland security funds, which are awarded largely in relation to a city or region’s population. “It’s based on a formula that just doesn’t work,” says Ghio. “Jurisdictions with low populations and no risk are receiving a higher per capita [allocation] than San Diego.” Some cities are lobbying the federal government to change the current system to a risk-based structure, says Ghio, which would increase San Diego’s share of dollars.

Congresswoman Susan Davis says “congressional oversight” might have led to the current allocations system. “When they began talking about Homeland Security dollars and everything was me, me, me . . . you had to ask, ‘Aren’t there some parts of the country that are more at risk than others?’ ” she says.

During Ghio’s tenure, his office presented the federal government with a list of 823 infrastructure and economic resources he says need protection. “We’ve got the most active border in the world, which is impossible to secure properly. We have an active port . . . and we’ve got the container ship industry,” he says. “We’ve got a stadium, a ballpark, SeaWorld and the zoo. These are huge potential [targets].”

However, Davis says the government actually views San Diego as less of a risk than other cities, because of its military bases. “To me, it seems that could make us an even greater target, but the reality is that when it comes to terrorist attacks, I think they are looking for more ‘soft’ targets . . . malls, places where a lot of people gather where there’s not a lot of security . . . as opposed to a military base where there is a lot of checking IDs.”

Davis’ assertion was confirmed January 3 when the federal Department of Homeland Security announced an additional shift in the way it funds cities considered to be at highest risk of a terrorist attack—a change that could cut as much as $14 million in funding from San Diego’s coffers. As Davis predicted, the new funding guidelines view the military as an asset, rather than a liability.

Sainz says Mayor Sanders has asked federal Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to reconsider San Diego’s status as a terrorist target. The mayor will seek the backing of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers in making a similar plea in Washington, Sainz says.

Sainz maintains that Ghio’s departure, to accept a position as chief of the San Miguel Fire Protection District, was not related to the looming decrease in federal funding.

Just days before leaving his homeland security post, Ghio expressed consternation over San Diego’s terrorism downgrade, from a category 3 risk (high) to a category 2 (moderate). He says Chertoff, in San Diego recently to discuss the expansion of the border fence, told him that the city’s risk factor had been lowered because of its military assets and, in part, the perceived security a planned 14-mile segment of secondary border fencing, running from the ocean to Otay Mountain, will afford the region.

However, Ghio says, a beefed-up border alone will not save San Diego from the machinations of terrorists. “It’s going to help, but it’s not going to stop it,” he says. “The San Diego area will still be a high risk because of the border region,” its port and military presence.

The San Diego office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently assessed the area’s risk as high, Ghio says, in contrast to the lower rating offered by FBI officials and other policymakers in Washington. “I don’t believe the federal government’s assessment was accurate,” he says.

DAVIS IS COCHAIR of a congressional panel charged with analyzing U.S. defense capabilities during disasters. She was in New Orleans shortly after Katrina.

“The pictures just don’t represent anything near the catastrophe that occurred there,” she says. “The big question is ‘Who’s in charge?’ . . .

I think [we need] more opportunities for people to really sit down and figure out what the lines of authority are, and under what circumstances we can determine that this is something that poses an imminent national disaster.”

Ghio says there are established “memorandums of understanding with local military commands to utilize their assets if they are available during disaster conditions.”

During San Diego’s 2003 Cedar fire, Congressman Duncan Hunter ordered the Navy’s H3 helicopters into action to help extinguish the back-country blaze, only to have the Forestry Department turn them down.

“The California Department of Forestry said, ‘We don’t want you because you haven’t received the proper certification,’ ” says Hunter. “These guys had many more hours flying these things than most of the California Department of Forestry people.”

Hunter, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, says the military has the authority to move into action; city or county officials need merely make the call. “They can move to start providing help immediately without any resolution or any direction being required from the federal government,” he says.

Ghio maintains that communication between government officials and the military today is much better in San Diego County. “We meet regularly with the Navy, Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard to make sure we know what each has as far as available assets and resources [and] where they can be applied during disaster situations,” he says.

Still, however amiable relations may be, expectations often exceed availability during wartime, says Ghio. “We’re at a time of war, so the resources that you have established relationships with may already be deployed.”

IN JULY 2004, EMERGENCY OFFICIALS in Louisiana took part in the fictional Category 3 “Hurricane Pam” training exercise. Though the response to Hurricane Katrina raised considerable doubt as to the effectiveness of the pricy training, Davis believes such drills save money in the long run.

“In some ways, it could have been even worse had they not done that,” Davis says of the Hurricane Pam exercise. “They learned a lot about the movement of people and the evacuation service. . . . One of the important comments made is that you don’t want to exchange business cards in the middle of a disaster.”

The first in a series of planned regional exercises simulating a terrorist attack was held in November at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The training aims to engage emergency personnel from across the county in planning, response and anti-terrorism equipment use.

Ghio says that exercise taught him that software systems in place to help the city manage a disaster need improving. And more training is needed for people in policy- making positions in the city’s emergency operations center. During a disaster, the center would ostensibly be under the direction of San Diego’s new chief operating officer, Ronne Froman, while Sanders is out in the field orchestrating relief efforts.

Chief among the things most local officials say need improving is the city’s antiquated communications system. Sanders says the ability of the city’s first responders to communicate with the California Department of Forestry and the California Highway Patrol is inadequate. As witnessed during Katrina and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, first responders arriving from outside the area would not be on the same radio frequency as local emergency workers in San Diego.

san diego fire chief jeff bowman“Our entire radio system here in the city is on the verge of breaking down,” says San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman. “It would cost about $150 million to replace police and fire radio systems with one that’s interoperable with other agencies—and there’s no funding for that.”

Ghio says the county’s Unified Disaster Council is discussing plans to add a regional fire communications vehicle. “It’ll have all the right technology, including that black box that allows disparate radio equipment to function together,” he says.

A cache of backup radios is being purchased for use by first responders and other relief workers arriving from outside San Diego, so they will be on the same frequency as local responders. The additional radios will cost the city an estimated $900,000.

“We’re probably going to purchase a good portion of that through grants this first year and then finish it off next year,” Ghio says.

CONGRESSMAN HUNTER, currently promoting his True Enforcement and Border Security Act, which seeks $8 billion to beef up the border fence—extending it from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with 25 additional ports of entry—scoffs at the idea of spending money on what he considers a bandage on a severed artery.

“If you have a terrorist who comes into the United States and you end up with a chemical or biological disaster, the fact that you’ve got a shiny new fire truck or a new communications system from Homeland Security funds is going to pale compared to an enforced border, which would have deterred the attack in the first place,” says Hunter. “Last year we apprehended 155,000 people on the southern border who came from countries other than Mexico . . . people from Communist North Korea, Communist China, Yemen and Iran. . . . Border enforcement is no longer an immigration issue solely. It’s now a national security issue.”

Shiny or not, the city’s fire-engine fleet is on the verge of breaking down, says Bowman. And despite plans for the construction of a new Mission Valley fire station (with an estimated $1.4 million price tag), Bowman says the city is conservatively “20 fire stations short.”

His department’s primary deficiency in terms of disaster preparedness is not enough firefighters. The average national benchmark, says Bowman, is one firefighter per 1,000 people.

“Right now, we’re at .69 [per thousand],” he says. “We only have 875 firefighters. We’d need about an additional 400.” By comparison, San Francisco has two firefighters per 1,000, he says. San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne says his agency is also woefully understaffed. “The misnomer is that we’re the first responders,” he says. “In the first 24 hours, police and fire are the only responders. . . . We have one of the lowest levels of staffing of any major city in America.”

SDPD has slightly more than 2,000 sworn officers on staff. In a major emergency, as was seen in the Cedar fire, officers work mandatory 12-hour shifts. About 1,000 officers, or half of today’s force, would work the first shift, with the other half working the second—providing no police officers were killed or incapacitated during the disaster.

“We have a plan to be able to add [more officers] over the next five years,” says Lansdowne. His goal is to hire 300 officers over the next five years, pending approval by the City Council.

EARTHQUAKES ARE the natural disaster most closely associated with Southern California. San Diego State University geology professor Pat Abbott says there is a statistical precedent for a magnitude-6.3 earthquake occurring along the Rose Canyon fault. The portion of the Rose Canyon fault zone that has been most active over the past 2,000 years starts just south of the Mount Soledad cross, cutting over to San Diego Gas & Electric’s operations center.

“If you go from the cross, winding your way downhill to La Jolla Shores, that fault cuts right across a couple hundred million- dollar homes,” says Abbott.

Ghio concedes an earthquake had been his biggest nightmare. “We haven’t been challenged with an earthquake yet, like San Francisco or Loma Prieta,” he says. “We do have our tabletop [exercises] on that type of a disaster, but you don’t have time to prepare when it happens; you don’t have time to evacuate.”

Bowman, former chief of the Anaheim Fire Department, says his experience with seismic activity in that region leads him to concur with Ghio. “I’ve lived through earthquakes in Orange County and helped respond to the ones in Los Angeles,” he says. “We don’t have the ability here to manage that with [current] on-duty staffing.”

In the area surrounding Lindbergh Field and the former Naval Training Center, where residential and commercial development sits on centuries of riverbed accretion, damage would be high, Abbott says. “All of that is basically sitting on loose, water-saturated sand that has been deposited only in the past few thousand years,” he says. “Every sewer pipe in the metropolitan area crosses through that unstable sediment on its way to Point Loma to the sewage treatment plant, so there’s a strong probability that [those] will be broken.”

Tall buildings and other sizable structures built on loose sediment—including hotels near Mission Bay, the Coronado Bridge or the expanse of freeway overpass where Interstates 8 and 805 meet, near Mission Valley—would be tested most. “I’m not saying they’re falling,” says Abbott, “but they will all be tested if some things there were done poorly.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi proposed reducing the cost of earthquake insurance in the state by an average of 22.1 percent (though in some high-risk areas, such as Riverside, Palm Springs and San Bernardino, rates would actually see a substantial increase).

The 1994 magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake caused about $12.5 billion in residential property loss. The same magnitude earthquake in San Diego would today cause an estimated $90 billion in residential property loss, says Nancy Kincaid, a spokesperson for the semipublic California Earthquake Authority, the world’s largest provider of earthquake insurance. “How do you recover from that?” she asks. “It’s a Katrina-size disaster.”

DURING HURRICANE KATRINA, a fleet of school buses sat unused, submerged in fetid water while citizens languished at the New Orleans Superdome in the company of corpses. Whether a catastrophe comes in the form of an earthquake, fire or terrorist attack, moving people out of harm’s way is also an important aspect of disaster planning.

Lansdowne says buses would be used to get people out of the city—including prison inmates—“whether it’s school buses, sheriff ’s buses or private enterprises. All of those contacts, we have.”

As former chair of the Unified Disaster Council, which includes representatives from all 18 cities in the region, County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price says her biggest concern is having enough buses to evacuate the sick, elderly, foster youth and others unable to leave on their own.

“If you think about how many people live here in the county—more than 3 million—the routes that we have, which you see [clogged] every morning and evening, are barely adequate,” says Slater- Price. “It’s just not really feasible to imagine a mass evacuation of this county. . . . If you go east, you quickly get into areas where there’s no available water, where you can’t use cell phones. You really are out in the country.”

Given planned cuts to San Diego city staff, as well as the city’s rocky fiscal situation, officials need to come up with more creative funding solutions, such as current partnerships with Qualcomm and other corporations, Bowman says.

“That’s going to be the challenge for Mr. Sanders,” he says. “I’ve recommitted my willingness to sit down, roll up my sleeves and help him find solutions.”

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