Pretending it’s the big one

A simulated earthquake Friday tested the city government’s ability to handle a catastrophic disaster, and there was general agreement among those participating that much more training is required before Malibu is adequately prepared.

The earth began to shake, in everyone’s imagination, around noon, with the quake’s epicenter in Long Beach along the Inglewood-Newport fault. A make-believe area 100 miles long and 30 miles wide was affected.

Volunteers called City Hall with all kinds of anticipated emergencies. Everything from loved ones lost and houses collapsed to gas leaks and roads blocked. The imagined mayhem outside was matched by real chaos inside the City Hall conference room, which was converted into an emergency operations center.

City staffers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and American Red Cross representatives filled the center. Each group was talking at the same time. Phones were constantly ringing. People had to shout when making general announcements. All the while, runners brought reports of the latest emergencies.

Many of the reports, written out by volunteers answering phones down the hall, made no sense to city staffers. “They’re not writing clearly enough and not asking the right questions,” said city Administrative Clerk Nancy Steiner. Looking over one report, Kim Collins, project manager for Public Works, said in exasperation, “I know it’s a fire, but God knows where.”

Emergencies were updated on a board so everyone in the room could keep track of the latest developments: “1:30 — Rush on Heathercliff market,” “1:50 — Oil tanker on fire — 4-6 miles out to sea,” “2:00 BLDNG COLLAPSE — SEADRIFT COVE.” Throughout the mock disaster, a television in the center broadcast live footage of Hurricane Georges ripping through Florida.

By 2:30 p.m., City Manager Harry Peacock admitted, “We’re overwhelmed,” and he officially declared a state of emergency, whereby “mutual aid” is requested from outlying areas.

In a real earthquake, Peacock said, no phones would be working because power lines would be down. The center would receive information from police, firefighters, sheriffs and residents with HAM radios and walkie-talkies.

The American Red Cross would care for residents forced to flee their homes. “At this point, we would have been activating a shelter, picking a location — either on Bluffs Park, the Community Center in Point Dume or the high school — depending on what’s going on,” said Red Cross representative Ted Ravinett.

With Malibu located along the coast, there would be a danger of a tsunami, or tidal wave, and soon the following update was posted, “2:50 — HIGH SURF — HOUSES IN OCEAN — Monte Nido.” Peacock used his God-like powers to pull the plug on the earthquake at 3 p.m.

The most important information during a real emergency, according to Peacock, is a “damage assessment in the field. We’re lucky. We have an entire fire and sheriff’s department at our disposal. Our biggest problem is a lack of public works people.”

After the quake was called off, city accounting technician Erik Porter complained, “This was much more chaos than actual training.” It was decided that next time, phone data would be collected with more precision. Also, there would be updates on what rescue equipment remained available, because “There was no tracking of what resources are used up,” explained Collins.

Instead of playing out an entire emergency situation, some staffers preferred to hold small, focused training sessions in the future. “We had no idea what we were on top of and what we weren’t on top of,” said Planning Director Craig Ewing. He hoped next time we rehearse in slow motion.”

Other staffers thought the fast and furious pace was beneficial, being more true to life. “We’re learning from all of this . . . That is why we have drills,” said City Engineer Rick Morgan.

Peacock sensed among the city staff “frustration at not feeling more confident at what we have to accomplish,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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