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Friday, Feb. 27, 2009 | From earthquakes and terrorist attacks to tsunamis and pandemics, the list of disasters that could strike San Diego is long. But with the ocean to the west and Mexico to the south, the number of ways to evacuate the county is short.
Ron Lane’s job is to make sure the county is ready to get people out of harm’s way in even the worst-case scenarios. This month, the New Hampshire native is entering his fourth year as director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.
A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who served in both Iraq wars, he’s a resident of Oceanside and graduate of the master’s program at San Diego State University.
We sat down to talk to Lane about the challenges facing local authorities as they prepare for the things like wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis and bird flu outbreaks.
When does your agency respond to a crisis?
We get involved when a city is overwhelmed and needs assistance or when an incident involves more than one city. Generally, it’s any kind of event that would exceed the capability of the individual city to manage.
For the most part, the most likely disaster in San Diego County is wildfires. We have them once every four or five years.
Earthquakes are the second most likely. Geologists tell us Southern California has one major earthquake every 150 years, and we have one major fault that goes through our city called the Rose Canyon Fault.
Terrorism is the most difficult emergency to prepare for because you don’t know the when or where or how. A major wildfire (by contrast) will only occur during a Santa Ana period.
What kind of disaster are you most prepared to handle?
All disasters have the same kind of components from our perspective: the key is to get the right resources to the right places at the right time.
In order to do that, you need a few things in place. You need to know what’s going on in the field and figure out what resources are needed in that situation.
How have things here changed since 9/11?
Nationwide, there’s been a pendulum shift. Before 9/11, there was a large focus on hurricanes and natural disasters. After, the focus of the nation was homeland security. And after Katrina, there was a shift.
Now, nationwide emergency management is in a good space between natural disasters and homeland security. We recognize the need to be able to respond to natural disasters as well as terrorism.
There’s a lot of overlap. A lot of our communication systems are applicable to both kinds of disasters.
What kind of new resources do you have available?
Since 9/11 and the 2003 fires, we’ve added a tremendous amount of fire resources. We now have four helicopters. We didn’t have any prior to the 2003 fires as far as fire-fighting helicopters locally.
In terms of local communications, the county Board of Supervisors put more than $20 million into our communication systems. In 2003, we didn’t have a robust enough system in the backcountry for our firefighters to communicate. In 2007, we did.
What have you done to get ready to shelter people in an emergency?
We have shelter caches, caches of shelter supplies around the region. We’ve pre-positioned cots and blankets and everything at Qualcomm Stadium, the Del Mar fairground and in the cities.
If we have to open up a major shelter during a fire, we have all the equipment and things that we need there. During the fires (in 2007) we had to scramble to borrow things from the military and other people.
We have enough shelter supplies for over 6,000 people, but that’s not counting the Red Cross, which is enough to shelter 5,000 people.
When we evacuate people, we find that only about 10-15 percent go to a public shelter, the rest stay with family and friends.
How big could an evacuation be? Do you have plans to evacuate everybody?
During the (2007) fires, we did implement the largest fire evacuation in the history of the country. So we have plenty of experience doing that.
Where we have focused on is a level-two evacuation of up to 250,000 people. A level-three evacuation of all the county is extremely unlikely. There aren’t that many scenarios that would cause us to evaluate San Diego.
Even during a major earthquake, our goal is not to evacuate. It’s much safer for most of the citizens to shelter in place because the roads and bridges aren’t safe and power lines are down.
Some terrorism-related scenarios would cause us to do a major evacuation. We do have a plan for evacuating the bulk of San Diego County and have timed it out how long it would take and where we’d go.
How long would it take?
It would take approximately 36 hours to evacuate the bulk of the population.
It’s deceiving. We move a good share of our population every day. Hundreds of thousands of people commute.
If you look at the number of cars that the roads can handle, especially contraflow (with the freeways set to go just one way), with three per car assuming the family goes together, and the roads moving the way we think they should be, I think we average 35 miles an hour or whatever, it can be done.
We certainly do have challenges because we have so few ways to get out of here, with Mexico to the south and the ocean to our west. We are limited, but it can be done if we had to. But we don’t see a lot of scenarios that would require us to do that.
Do you have a place to put people?
Once they left the county, we’d have to work very closely with Arizona, Orange County or whatever to take them in. That’s the real challenge, what to do with the citizens once they’ve gone.
What about Mexico? Could they take people?
That’s an international thing that would have to be arranged with the federal government.
What will be some challenges during an evacuation?
I’m a firm believer that the most vulnerable among us are those who have the least ability to withstand a major disaster. (It’s important to have) plans for vulnerable populations, whether it’s the elderly or homeless or disabled, those populations who can’t evacuate themselves or fend for themselves. Over the last couple of years, we’ve really focused on having good, strong plans in place to help them.
Do you have a plan for the homeless?
It wasn’t a major issue during the fires, although we had some migrant camps to evacuate.
In our evacuation plan, we have a strategy to establish evacuation points where homeless people can go to get on public transportation, buses that we provide, to get out of the danger area. And it’s not just homeless people, it’s tourists and people who don’t have access to a car at a given time.
Are there some unusual disasters that you’ve discussed and are ready for? Like a tsunami?
Tsunamis aren’t that unusual. Technically, we’ve had five tsunamis over the last two decades, but all were relatively small, under 3- or 5-foot waves.
There are things like pandemics, bird flu, that are concerns.
Emergency management is about being prepared for an unknown. You never know when a plane will crash or a train will derail or there will be a school shooting.