Feldman Defends Woolsey Disaster Response

Smoke from the Hill and Woolsey fires colors the sky at sunset on Thursday, Nov. 8. 

Under normal circumstances, reports from consultant group Management Partners go through a “two-step vetting process,” according to Vice President Andy Bellknap. But Malibu’s post-Woolsey Fire report draft was made publicly available before city staff had an opportunity to weigh in.

“We wanted to make sure this was our work—it was transparently our work,” Bellknap told city council members on Monday, Aug. 12. “That was important on this engagement.”

Because of that, Monday was the first chance Malibu officials had to discuss, critique and suggest edits to the report. It was also the first chance City Manager Reva Feldman had to dispute several of the claims made by Management Partners.

Down the list Feldman went, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone as representatives from Management Partners scribbled notes.

The draft report claimed the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was unmanned overnight following the first day of the fire.

“Although staff were engaged in the incident from various sectors, an EOC was not formally staffed for 16 hours between 4 p.m. on Nov. 9 and 8 a.m. on Nov. 10,” according to the report.

“That’s just incorrect; that’s not what happened,” Feldman said.

The draft report also alleged, “City staff left behind critical information and equipment when the EOC was forced to relocate. Equipment such as laptops, satellite phones, personal contact information, and payroll information made operations in the new location exceedingly difficult.” Again, Feldman said, the claim was not true.

“We did take all of the necessary supplies that were needed,” the city manager described.

“In fact, we had several discussions … as to what items we would need with us,” she said, adding that after the 2006 and 2007 fires that “literally encircled” the former City Hall building, “we actually established several redundant protocols for City Hall, particularly during emergencies,” including a duplicate server located out of state in Arizona. All of the city staff had laptops with them on the day of the fire, Feldman said, and took them on the day of the fire. 

“We had city staff answering city phones throughout that first night, and … we had those [calls] answered until we returned to City Hall,” she said.

“Again, we weren’t given a choice to remain here at City Hall—we were ordered to evacuate,” Feldman reiterated. She suggested, as did Mayor Pro Tem Karen Farrer, a representative for the consultant should speak to Maria Grycan, community services liaison with LA County Fire—one of the people who ordered the mandatory City Hall evacuation. 

According to Feldman, about 25 of the 53 total recommendations put forward “actually already were in place at the time of the Woolsey Fire or we have already completed and implemented those since the fire.” Another dozen or so, she said, were in the works. “And then there’s a handful that just aren’t feasible.”

The report also did not touch on the city’s “robust and active communication system,” Feldman noted, which includes the City of Malibu’s e-notify system (which generates text messages and email alerts), the city’s website and the Everbridge alert system. (All of which rely on cell service and/or internet access.)

“Let me ask you a question. When you read the report, what did you see … what [do] you remember were the major challenges that we faced during the fire?” Council Member Mikke Pierson—who was elected just one day before the Woolsey Fire began—asked Feldman.

“I think that as much as we plan—and for a small city, we have planned and planned and planned. We knew we were going to have a fire. We knew there was going to be a major mudslide,” the city manager began. “This is not something that is new to city staff. We have regular EOC drills with partner agencies. We have redundancies in place. 

“But I think the scale of the disaster took everyone by surprise,” she continued. “I think the lack of power, and therefore the lack of cell towers, was something that was surprising—and being the last city in the line of this fire, and kind of being the last to get sufficient resources was challenging for us … As I think back, I think I just assumed that was happening, and now obviously we know it didn’t.

“We were asking for help and being told it was there and in place and that wasn’t the case,” Feldman described.