Thirty years ago the San Andreas Fault ruptured near Loma Prieta Peak, 10 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, creating the largest urban earthquake in more than 80 years. That magnitude 6.9 earthquake took 63 lives and injured another 3,757. In 2018, the Camp Fire tore through Northern California communities becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in our state’s history. These catastrophic events, and others, beg the question — are you ready for the next major disaster?
While we often think about preparing our homes for disaster, we might not immediately consider the critical role transportation plays in any serious event. You see, transportation infrastructure provides the backbone for any emergency response effort. And a successful evacuation relies on multiple resources (people, equipment, technology) seamlessly communicating and coordinating all with the same goal in mind – working in partnership to save lives.
Evacuation efforts are largely dependent on access and egress points being safe and accessible. Roads, railways, public transportation and airports all provide a lifeline for evacuation. And we know that when there are limited evacuation routes, especially among unpruned trees and other vegetation that is without defensible space, the outcome is grim. But we also know that people matter and that it is not just about infrastructure.
As history shows, our transit workers are critical to preserving life. Think back to the harrowing events of 9/11. As people ran from smoke and debris, others charged forward to offer assistance. In fact, more than 3,000 transit workers participated in the response to 9/11, completing tasks from emergency response to debris cleanup. During California’s harrowing Camp Fire last year, a local bus driver saved dozens of children from the blaze, shuttling them out of the permeating thicket of black smoke. Ultimately, as these examples demonstrate, emergency response cannot succeed without committed and well-trained workers.
But preparations also need to be made on a personal level to maximize the likelihood that you and your loved ones will survive. Every family should have an emergency plan that identifies where to meet family members and includes the location of emergency supplies, important phone numbers and where utility shutoff valves are located. But this is not enough.
The next line of defense may be a personal vehicle and having a car that is gassed up and ready to go is a crucial part of any disaster contingency plan. Because once an event occurs, it is too late to plan. This is why an emergency kit for the car is of paramount importance. The most critical item to have is water, followed by prescribed medications, non-perishable food items and other key supplies. Of course, the best preparations don’t matter if your car is out of fuel.
But what about our most vulnerable community members – people who are aging, have mobility challenges or are low-income and may not own a vehicle? That is when the availability of timely evacuation information and public transport, such as buses, becomes even more crucial. We know from the hard-learned lessons following multiple disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, that low mobility groups need additional assistance and that busing is often the most common mode of transportation in an evacuation.
As such, it is imperative that emergency management agencies communicate with transit authorities, school districts and tour operators – all of whom have a role to play in an evacuation. That planning needs to happen here and now because together we increase our chances of surviving.
As the peak forest fire season approaches – and with the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill in October — there’s no better time to make sure you and your family are prepared because in an emergency every second counts and lost time equals lost lives.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her column appears every first Thursday of the month.