Emergency Preparedness
By Patrick Muffler, Committee Chair

When the lights go out
Previous articles about Emergency Preparedness have emphasized four major types of disasters that could seriously affect our community: earthquakes, floods, toxic spills and terrorism. Last month's events in the northeastern part of the United States, however, have awakened us to a fifth type of disaster: a major breakdown of the electric-power grid. On Thursday 14 August, much of New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, southern Canada, and part of New England was suddenly and without warning left without power. The specific cause of the outage is still controversial, but for our purposes it does not matter. What does matter is that in about nine seconds 61,800 megawatts of power were lost and approximately 50,000,000 people were left without electricity.

The results of this massive outage have been reported extensively in the media, and I won't detail them here. Suffice it to say that it wasn't merely the inconvenience of no electrical lights and no air conditioning. Transportation networks, most spectacularly the subways and commuter trains in New York City, were brought to an abrupt halt. Pumping stations failed in Ohio and Michigan, depriving millions of people of tap water. Gasoline and diesel became precious commodities as electrically powered gas pumps sat idle. Phone systems, both landline and cell, were compromised. Restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses dependent on refrigeration took big economic hits. The list goes on and on.

The response to the outage was truly impressive, by governments, by the utilities, and by the public. Much of the power was restored by the next day, but it took several days for clean water to be restored in some Midwest cities, and the lingering effects of the blackout persisted for nearly a week. But this was a blackout that occurred on a sunny, summer afternoon—not in a blinding blizzard in mid January. The major lesson for us is that such a widespread blackout could happen anywhere in the United States. Our utilities indeed are owned by the City of Palo Alto but are part of the Western Grid, which covers the states west of Denver plus British Columbia and Alberta. Electrical power is wheeled around this grid depending primarily on demand and available supply. A major breakdown of the Western Grid will inevitably affect us.

And the grids throughout the United States are sorely in need of expansion and upgrading. According to the Edison Electric Institute, even as the US economic output doubled between 1975 and today, investment in the grids fell from $5 billion to about $2 billion annually. Deregulation appears to be the primary culprit, leaving the electrical utilities with minimal economic incentive to improve the grids. Interstate rivalries, politics, and ever-increasing demand also are factors.

So what are the immediate lessons that Barron Park residents should learn from the August blackout in the Northeast? The first is simply a reiteration of the need for each household to provide for its basic needs for several days to a week, without any assistance from an outside government or private entity. In a major disaster, each household will be on its own. Each household needs to have sufficient emergency supplies to tide it over the period until outside assistance becomes available and utilities are restored.

The essentials of any cache of emergency supplies are water, food, a battery-powered radio and first-aid supplies. Excellent guidelines for emergency caches are presented in the 3rd edition of "Living with our Faults," published in 1994 by the City of Palo Alto— www.cityofpaloalto.org/fire/earthquake/ (see table of contents). For those who choose not to build their own emergency caches, the American Red Cross sells a wide selection of Disaster Preparedness Kits that are described in detail at www.paarc.org/supplies/cat_disaster.htm. The second obvious lesson comes from the graphic pictures of New Yorkers trudging across bridges, walking hundreds of blocks in blistering heat, and sleeping on the steps of public buildings. If a major disaster occurs during daylight hours, many of us are very likely to be away from home: at work, at a restaurant, transporting kids to school or soccer, etc. We may have a wonderful household emergency kit at home, but what good will this do us if we are stuck elsewhere owing to traffic jams, blocked railroad crossings, damaged roads or bridges, etc.? I remember what a major exercise it was to get from Menlo Park to Barron Park the afternoon of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and that was an earthquake whose epicenter was many miles to the south and whose effect on Palo Alto was very minor. In a community like ours, almost totally dependent on personal automobiles, non-functioning traffic lights produce instant gridlock.

The solution to this is obvious: carry an emergency kit in your car. In each of our two cars we carry a small rucksack that contains the following: a flashlight, a liter bottle of water, a heavy sweater, a space blanket, leather gloves (for protection against broken glass), a small first-aid kit, protective gloves (for first aid to others), four small packages of tissue, six pre-moist towlettes, and some granola bars, In addition, in each car each of us has a pair of old hiking boots or tennis shoes (with socks). If I have to walk five miles from Menlo Park to Barron Park, I would much prefer to do it in good walking shoes. And my wife sure doesn't want to walk five miles in heels!

A major goal of the Barron Park Association and its Emergency Preparedness Committee is to greatly increase the percentage of households prepared for a disaster. The recent Northeast power outage emphasizes our vulnerability. Each household needs to take steps to assure adequate supplies of emergency water, food, etc. for a week without assistance, and to have the essential supplies in your cars so that you can cope if a disaster strikes while you are elsewhere.

Thank you for joining the Barron Park Association. If you haven't filled out our Emergency Preparedness form, please see: www. cyberstars.com/bpa/emergency