Disaster Victims to Share Their Wisdom

Main Beach and downtown streets were inundated with mud and floodwaters in last December’s 100-year rainstorm. City officials hope to better prepare residents and merchants for emergencies at a workshop this Saturday. Photo by Ted Reckas

With shocking images from Japan’s quake and tsunami last month as a sobering reminder, Laguna Beach’s city officials aim to bolster disaster readiness here by learning hard-won lessons from victims of local catastrophes at a City Hall workshop Saturday, April 9.

“We need to hear the experiences and the ideas firsthand so that we can all have a better understanding of the things we might do,” said Councilmember Elizabeth Pearson, who is organizing the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. event in Council Chambers with fellow councilmember Kelly Boyd. She has personally invited survivors of recent disasters to share their insights.

Residents and business owners that have experienced fire, flood or landslides – the most prevalent local disasters – or those with expertise or tools related to disaster planning are encouraged to attend and share their knowledge with city department heads  who will be present.

One workshop objective is to encourage organization by neighborhood since areas such as Bluebird Canyon, Arch Beach Heights, and Top of the World have perilously few escape routes. Boyd said neighborhood associations had been invited because “we want neighborhoods to work together to be prepared.”

Even so, John Albritton, president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners, hard hit by last December’s flooding, was unaware of the meeting. As was Piero Wemyss and Gene Felder, of the Top of the World Neighborhood Association. Disaster planning is a pre-occupying concern of TOWNA’s board, Felder said, because just two streets provide access from the neighborhood.

At least one South Laguna resident, Lona Ingwerson, was hoping that the city would look beyond its own immediate disasters and look at emergency measures in place by the operators of the San Onofre nuclear power plant south of San Clemente.

So far the plant’s 10-mile emergency planning zone, which does not extend to Laguna Beach’s city limits, has not yet been enlarged in the wake of Japan’s disaster, said City Manager John Pietig. He anticipates the Japanese nuclear crises will prompt new scrutiny of the plant. And last week, operators Southern California Edison proposed a new study to assess seismic conditions.

Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo are both designated decontamination sites. Hospital manager Wade Hunt will participate in Saturday’s workshop, said spokeswoman Kelsey Martinez. Mission Viejo’s fire and police department has for several years hosted community emergency preparedness academies, teaching citizen leaders tools to prepare for emergencies, but Laguna, to her knowledge, has not held one, she said.

“I’m glad that something’s being done and someone’s making an effort,” said local resident David Mitchell, chair of a citizen advisory council on disaster preparedness that is allied with the Laguna Relief and Resource Center. He plans to attend. “I want to get people thinking about it and getting prepared,” said Mitchell. “We will spend $20 million on flood damage. A fraction of that would have helped minimize it,” he said.

Due to Laguna’s numerous access vulnerabilities, in the event of a major disaster Mitchell believes residents should prepare “to shelter in place,” in their own homes for the first 24 hours. “It’s simple stuff; setting aside food, tennis shoes in the car, walkie-talkie radios.”

But he concedes the message has not sunk in. “We react to problems instead of planning for it,” he said.


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