Earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, landslides, extreme weather, go-bags? We’re ready.
But hazardous material and oil spills? Drought or terrorist activities?
It’s something even remote counties need to consider in their disaster preparedness plans.
Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Emergency Manager Kymmie Scott has been addressing all those disaster scenarios and more as part of such a plan the nation approved earlier this month. She outlined much of it in a meeting at the Howonquet Community Center Tuesday night.
The meeting was held to explain to local residents the inherent risks of living on the edge of an earthquake, in the middle of a forest and along a heavily trafficked highway in northern Del Norte County. But the issues are equally as pertinent in Curry County, Scott said.
“There’s a whole lot of things that can potentially affect us here,” she said. “If we don’t know a hazardous material incident could be a disaster here, we don’t know how to overcome it when it happens to us.”
The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation approved its Emergency Operation Plan — the “basic plan” — Jan. 10, and is now working on the minutiae, such as how debris might be handled after a tsunami, or how to start the recovery process of building roads and water systems and homes.
A community approach is key in small communities — it was witnessed in the Chetco Bar and Klondike wildfires of 2017 and 2018. There, state and federal officials descended upon the area, were said to have dismissed advice given by those who have historical knowledge of the land — including information about alternate routes and how the Chetco Effect works — and might have contributed to the situation getting out of hand, many have said.
“I might know a lot about emergency management,” Scott said. “But I know little about the community. But there’s knowledge each one of you has about your community. In talks with community members, I hear things and think, ‘I’d never guessed in a million years!’ Or, ‘I never read that in a textbook;’ ‘I never heard that from FEMA.’ Every perspective of (local) information has been helpful to me.”
She cited a man whose family has lived on the banks of the Smith River for generations. When a flood is forecast after a heavy storm, they watch the river rise. They’re not overly concerned with that river rise, Kimmie said — they’re watching to see if it suddenly stops. If that happens, they know there’s been a blockage upstream, and when that water finally bursts through, then the family will really see the river rise. They plan for that.
Many disasters can cause damage beyond what’s originally thought, Scott said.
Fisheries can be lost — for the Tolowa, a cultural loss, as well.
Beyond the quake
Many communities, Scott said, have disaster plans in place. But many also don’t have plans to address the ramifications — the cascading effects — of those emergencies.
The people of Paradise, California, knew to flee the raging Camp Fire last fall. But they had nowhere to go when their town was completely engulfed. Many are still living in cars.
“What happens when your place of employment burns down?” Scott said. “What if your mom’s home, where you were going to sleep on the couch when your house burned down, burns down?”
Other disasters Scott outlined included chemical, nuclear, biological and explosive attacks — not likely events, Scott admitted, but possible.
The community approach is critical here, too: Citizens are encouraged to be aware of unusual activity in areas most familiar to them. See something? Say something, Scott said.
“This doesn’t just apply to airports,” she said. “It’s amazing the stuff that gets caught by someone who sees something and says something.”
Scott was witness to a civil incident that occurred in her small town of Granby, Colorado, when a resident angry at the city built a concrete-shelled tank in his garage and rolled it through town, destroying numerous buildings.
Granby, which had never planned for such an assault, was locked down and disrupted for days.
Climate change is another unfolding disaster, Scott noted. The crab season has been delayed for several consecutive years — although if that is completely climate-related has yet to be determined. Rising seawater creates coastal erosion — although the land in Del Norte County, located atop the continental plate under which the oceanic plate is going under, is actually rising faster. One day that subduction zone will slip and the water will come.
Add to that the biannual King Tides — the highest of the natural tides.
“We’re geeking out on the King Tides because it gives us some idea of our future with rising oceans,” Scott said. “We’re going to see more impacts in low-lying areas.”
More severe storms are threatening the Tolowa nation’s historic cemetery — many gravesites have already been moved once — disrupting the cultural heritage of the people.
“These are tangible things,” she said. “How do you protect the things that are pertinent to your community?”
Curry and Del Norte counties won’t see heat waves like the Midwest or Southwest, but most people don’t have air conditioning in this mild climate, and that can lead to unanticipated problems in hot weather.
The list goes on.
Mudflows and landslides, particularly along the U.S. 101 corridor, can disrupt transportation corridors. Offshore oil spills — unlikely, but possible — from the numerous tankers in the shipping lanes that crisscross the ocean just offshore.
A semi carrying chlorine and crashing could create suffocating conditions far downwind of that wreck.
A drought could affect the water supply that feeds the nation. The sinkhole in Harbor that disrupted traffic and flooded the port, requiring dredging of the basins. Active-shooter situations that can occur anywhere. Even the partial federal government shutdown disrupts communities.
“These cascading events,” Scott said. “They roll into another into another into another.”
Rules to be broken
Most disaster plans along the West Coast address wildfires, earthquakes and tsunamis — and much has been learned about preparation and recovery from the former.
But Scott, who has traveled to Japan to study the ramifications of the 2011 tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, also had advice for people that can run contrary to that typically espoused by emergency professionals.
Among them, is that people should wait until the ground stops shaking in an earthquake before they head to higher ground. No, she said, get up as soon as one can and flee; the earthquake in Japan rumbled beneath residents’ feet for minutes after minutes.
“I have a real problem with (recommended) evacuations lines,” she said. “There’s so many variables. Don’t wait for (the ground) to stop shaking. Wait until it’s safe to move, and move. You have minutes, and every second counts. If there’s an earthquake and you’re wondering if it’s big enough (to justify fleeing inland and uphill) … if you asked that, it’s big enough.”
And U.S. 101 being a good line to cross to be considered in a safe zone? Not necessarily. California’s earthquake experts say a 9.0-magnitude earthquake could create a tsunami wall of about 65 feet. Hop across the border to Oregon, and experts there say it’ll be 115 feet tall.
Keep going up. Keep going inland. Keep going, Scott said.
Meeting at a central gathering point, too, might be all fine and well in an ideal situation. But natural disasters are anything but ideal, and the odds of being able to reach such gathering points — or expending the energy trying to — might not be worth the effort, she said.
Keep going up. Keep going inland.
Another erroneous assumption people have, Scott said, is that FEMA is always there.
“There’s a misperception that FEMA will ride in on a white horse and take care of everything,” she said. “It doesn’t happen like that.”