The runaround

For all the talk of flood preparedness, CSUS grad students find a failure to communicate

Illustration By Erin Sierchio

The authors are participants in a graduate seminar in environmental sociology (the study of interactions between the environment and human society) at CSUS and have been focusing their studies this semester on Hurricane Katrina.

We were astonished to read SN&R’s recent feature story reporting that city and county officials claimed that “the city is well-protected by a net of agencies working closely and cooperatively.”

As dedicated environmental- sociology students, we collectively decided to investigate Sacramento’s flood preparedness on our own after the Katrina debacle. We contacted local agencies to obtain evacuation plans and guidelines; information on flood risk and environmental impacts; and information on overall city and county readiness, including their ability to cooperate—which clearly was New Orleans officials’ fatal flaw.

If our local Sacramento agencies really believe they are “working closely and cooperatively,” then these agencies need schooling in “cooperation.”

After weeks of phone calls, e-mails, on-site visits, Web searches and attending those much-heralded public forums, we’ve concluded that the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing. Sacramento is literally going to drown in bureaucracy and the “good job, Brownie” undercurrent being used to appease public concern and bolster confidence. This is as worrisome as the risk of an actual disaster.

After several weeks of effort, the authors have yet to find out what exactly Sacramento’s disaster plan is, what it looks like, where it is, if the public can access it, and who is in charge of it. One student’s phone call to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) to get the city’s “evacuation plan” was redirected to “your local fire or sheriff’s department, as they are the first responder.” SAFCA insisted that because it wasn’t a first responder, it had no information on evacuation plans. What? The flood agency has no information on evacuation plans? OK, we’ll follow the bureaucratic trail: Subsequent calls by students to local fire and sheriff’s offices resulted in numerous other redirects. One student’s request for the plan resulted in the Office of Emergency Services sending a booklet on personal preparedness with no mention of the city’s plan. Our investigations concluded that: (1) The city’s “multihazard plan” is not available to the public for fear of terrorist use; (2) the plan is currently under revision, and the existing two bound volumes are available at libraries for the public to review; (3) the plan was updated in the spring of this year—but no one knows where it is; and (4) there is a three-volume set of the plan from the 1970s, which is available at the library.

Not to be deterred, some of us decided to visit our local first responder: the fire station. The very polite fireman said that evacuation plans for the city are not the fire department’s responsibility; it only assists with rescues. He said the police department handles evacuation plans. Inquiries to the police and the sheriff both were met with non-responses. Perhaps they are busy dealing with jailhouse-abuse allegations.

What’s a citizen to do? Recent forums, as reported in SN&R and the Bee, have included detailed maps showing where floodwaters will go and what neighborhoods are at risk. Although the pretty maps look great and go a long way toward mollifying a concerned public, an actual analysis of the plan behind the maps shows areas of concern. The recent SN&R article mentioned that despite a number of forums, very few individuals showed up to them. A more important issue may be that very few people were even aware of them and that those hosting the events didn’t hold them in areas conducive to large groups. River Park’s meeting was actually over capacity, and the fire chief himself joked about breaking the laws he was meant to enforce to even hold the meeting. Homeowners in our group were never informed of their area’s local meeting, and most of us were unaware of the forums until they had already passed—and we were dedicated to finding this information! If the public is expected to attend and be accountable, then the city should be expected to get the word out to everyone, not just an arbitrary group of homeowners, and proper facilities for such a meeting are a basic prerequisite.

But the mayor and other officials seek to reassure us: We are prepared! We have a plan! News reports have mentioned the reverse 911 system that will be used to alert residents. At one forum we attended, it was stated that the system had not actually been purchased yet. It wasn’t just a matter of whether it was up and running in time for a disaster; it was a matter of getting approved to even buy it.

Despite the presence of Hector Cazares, the city’s director of animal services, at the meetings, no specific comment was made on whether our officials would aid people evacuating along with their animals and how this might happen. They did say large dogs would not be evacuated by helicopter. How about small dogs or cats? An e-mail to city officials regarding the city shelter’s evacuation plan has gone unanswered for more than a month.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) representative Juli Farley commented at the River Park meeting that despite her presence at other meetings, that was the first time she had been allowed to talk. CERT provides training to individuals to prepare them for disaster and also to aid others during a disaster. Considering that the training was being recommended by city officials at the forums, and that personal accountability is being heavily stressed, it would seem appropriate to let her talk more. Again, cooperation and communication seem to be a fantasy.

An investigation of preparedness at California State University, Sacramento, offered little more basis for optimism. Annette Meza, the transportation assistant, chuckled when asked about evacuation and said, “Go to the highest floor of the nearest building,” while Bill Scheffler, the coordinator for emergency operations, assured us that rafts are in the budget to be purchased. I feel assured; how about you? Maybe we’ll be able to use all the hot air around these parts to inflate those rafts.

Professor Kevin Wehr wrote this article with the assistance of students Marla Atchinson, Brooke Davis, Loran Garcia, Alex Keeble, Sharon Long, Heather Mondor, Robb Mullins, Wendy Namisnik, Elaine Paul, Lisa Peterson, Jack Phillips, Refugio Rivas, Dorian Rodriguez, Tanisha Searle and Bernadette Tello.