Leaders Discuss Lessons Learned from Global Disasters

Red Cross Los Angeles Global Disaster Conference
Why is it that only 6 percent of residents of this county self-report as having prepared for ‘The Big One’?

Preparedness was top of mind for the eight disaster relief leaders who gathered in the L.A. Times Auditorium earlier this month for a forum titled, “Lessons Learned from Global Disasters: Preparedness, Relief, Recovery in Los Angeles.”

Jarrett Barrios, CEO of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region, said that here in Southern California, where there’s a reasonable expectation of a major earthquake, there remains a lot to do in preparation efforts.

“Why is it that only 6 percent of residents of this county self-report as having prepared for ‘The Big One’?” Barrios asked.

That was the question that prompted the launch two years ago of Prepare SoCal, a joint initiative between the Red Cross and Edison International that seeks to promote more resilient communities in the face of potential disasters.

“We wanted to ask that question so that we can begin to answer, so that we, as the Red Cross does everywhere, can serve our purpose in helping a vulnerable community prepare to prevent the impact of a disaster,” Barrios said, “and so that when it strikes, we can be ready to respond and to help the community recover. That’s the essence of what PrepareSoCal is all about.”

“The Big One,” as Margaret Vinci of the California Institute of Technology explained, could be an earthquake with a magnitude as high as 7.8, which could hit Southern California at any time. It would be the largest earthquake Southern California has seen in more than a century.

“We know by the history of California that we have a magnitude 7.8 earthquake about every 150 years,” said Vinci, Manager of Cal Tech’s Office of Earthquake Programs. “We are way overdue for that size event. We don't know when that's going to happen, but it can happen anytime.”

The effects of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Southern California would be monumental, as Vinci explained – roads would be damaged, it could take up to 18 months for full restoration of water to households, and electricity could be out for several months. First responders would be overloaded responding to the most dangerous situations – including broken gas mains and downed electricity wires – so individual preparedness will be essential.

“We wanted to change the mindset in California away from, ‘I've lived here all my life. I went through the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, I went through the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and I was fine – I'll make it through the next one,’” Vinci said. “Unless you come from another country that has experienced a 7.8 earthquake, you do not know what it’s going to be like. Everybody needs to be prepared – it’s about preparedness, it’s about survival, and it’s about recovery.”

Janet Clayton, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at Edison International and Southern California Edison, echoed sentiments about the significance of the PrepareSoCal campaign, and explained the utility’s particular interest in its mission.

“The American Red Cross is what you think about when you think about disaster. And when you think about safety and making sure the lights are on, you usually think about the local utility,” Clayton said. “We wanted to do a signature program with Edison International, and we chose the American Red Cross for a reason – everybody knows and respects it across the world. We were able and willing to come forward with $1.5 million for three years, to really make an impact so that we can get people trained, so that we can get people aware, so that we can get people to understand that safety during a quake, or any disaster, includes a lot of safety around electricity.”

Eileen Decker, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Homeland Security for the City of Los Angeles, explained two new partnerships that L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti expects will aid the city’s preparedness efforts.

First, Mayor Garcetti’s office announced earlier this year that it will partner with U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Dr. Lucile M. Jones to develop earthquake resilience strategies for Los Angeles.

“Through this partnership, we’re able to convene large sections of the community to come together in city hall to talk about these issues and to help develop strategies to become more resilient,” Decker explained. “It’s an incredible opportunity for our city, not just for earthquake preparedness, but in developing resiliency all around.”

Los Angeles has also been selected as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities,” a program dedicated to helping cities around the world prepare for both natural disasters as well as other urban challenges, including high unemployment, public transportation system inefficiencies, or chronic food and water shortages.

“We're very proud of the partnership with Rockefeller Foundation because that would mean in the coming years, we will be working closely not just with them, but with public, private, and non-profit partners to redefine and implement a resiliency vision for the city,” Decker said.

Jeff Reeb, Director of Emergency Management at the Chief Executive’s Office for Los Angeles County, considered the lessons the county has learned in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

“I think we still have vulnerabilities that remain,” Reeb said. “We realize that some of our structures are not as resistant to earthquakes as we would like, and we see some resistance from our homeowners to get earthquake insurance. In fact, the percentage of people who have earthquake insurance has trickled from about 30 down to around 11 percent, so obviously, that message of adding earthquake insurance at home is not really resonating.”

But there’s also good news for the region’s disaster preparedness efforts since Northridge from Reeb’s perspective.

“We see our responder community, police and firefighters, are better equipped and better trained. They have more equipment. We have the rise of our urban search and rescue teams, so we see more capability on the ground when that event comes,” Reeb said.

Reeb also noted need for awareness about more vulnerable populations in the region that may be less prepared and so may require more services.

“It’s really hard to tell a family that’s economically challenged that they should stockpile some food at home, when maybe their children are already in a supplementary nutrition in the school system,” Reeb said. “That message doesn't really resonate with them, because they’re challenged to have enough for dinner that night, let alone have enough for dinner and to put something away in the closet or a cupboard. Then, if you also look at people with disabilities, and others with access and functional needs, we know from some of these recent disasters that they, too, are more disproportionally in need. I think we have to look at that, and that’s where I turn to our philanthropists because maybe there is an opportunity for some traction there, in those very vulnerable populations.”

The philanthropic community’s interest in preparedness was addressed at the forum by Christine Essel, President and CEO of Southern California Grantmakers, and Edmund J. Cain, Vice President of Programs at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

“Disaster doesn't mean something that's happening somewhere else out there in the world. It actually can happen in our region, and we too need to be prepared,” Essel said. “Because when it happens, everyone is affected: our companies, our employees, our customers, our grantees, our friends and families, everybody. We at SCG realized that we couldn't sit back and wait for the momentum to build on its own. This is the time for us to take leadership on this topic.”

Cain explained that the Conrad N. Hilton foundation has engaged in a grant-giving review process over the last several years and determined that preparedness and recovery are two areas in which grants can have the highest impact.

“Part of our strategic thinking is about how to really have an impact in this space – not to wait for the disaster to hit, but to make a smart investment up front on the preparedness side. We think that our money can have a larger impact there.” Cain said. “The second area that we think we can have a big impact in is in the recovery phase. We decided that after Katrina we were going to fill that space, so we hired consultants on the ground, in the wards, to go out and look at these areas. We gave a series of grants that resulted in sustainable results in various cases.”

Ramsey Rayyis, Asia Regional Representative for the American Red Cross, led the American Red Cross relief effort for Typhoon Haiyan. Rayyis brings both an international and local perspective to his vision for preparedness in Southern California.

“I grew up here in Los Angeles thinking that earthquakes were fun. I remember in 1971, the 6.6 Sylmar earthquake, I was sitting in my parent's bed with my Los Angeles Rams football helmet on – that was my disaster preparedness solution,” Rayyis said. “Since that time, in over 20 years working with the Red Cross internationally, I have seen the effects of major disasters around the world, most recently in Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. I've seen the tragic effects of what these disasters have done to communities, but I’ve also seen how preparedness can really save lives. Studies have shown that $1 invested in preparedness can result in $4 in emergency response savings. More importantly, we've seen clear examples that it's not just the money we're saving, but it's the lives that we're saving.”

And there is no better reason for preparedness than that.