SALINAS — Is Monterey County prepared to respond to a large-scale disaster?
That’s the question the county sought to answer when more than 100 representatives and employees from the state, county governments and transportation agencies gathered Tuesday in Salinas to test the county’s emergency response capabilities.
“You can’t just write a (response) plan and put it on the shelf and expect people to know how to implement it,” explained Gerry Malais, Monterey County’s emergency services manager. “You have to practice that. And certainly, the emergency operations center is one of the most critical things that we do because this is people’s (biggest) time of need. … That’s what we’re trying to practice today so that all the people in the emergency operations center understand their role to support what’s happening out in the field.”
Local jurisdictions and partner agencies participated in an earthquake emergency scenario exercise at the county Office of Emergency Services in Salinas from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, simulating the activation of the emergency operations center. The emergency operations center is a physical or virtual location designed to support emergency response and crisis communication activities during a major incident.
In the scenario, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake occurred along the Reliz Fault at 6 a.m. Monday, June 27. The main shock ruptured the fault for about 38 miles, causing significant ground shaking and damage to the cities of Salinas, Marina, Seaside and areas of North County. Aftershocks and damaged roads and bridges delayed response and recovery efforts from first responders.
Tuesday’s emergency response exercise took place the day following the earthquake, where participants were responsible for coordinating efforts to respond to the disaster, provide aid and evacuate more than 5,000 people.
Malais said the county picked the earthquake scenario because “it’s the most comprehensive disaster we will ever face.” He explained that an earthquake disaster could cause gas lines to break and start fires; cause water main breakage, which could limit firefighting ability; cause building collapses and result in massive injuries and rescue operations; or cause unexpected structure or wildland fires.
“Every other emergency that could happen, could happen because of an earthquake,” he said. “If you’re ready for an earthquake — not only the public, but us as responders and people that are going to come to the emergency operations center — you can handle anything. That’s why we do an earthquake.”
Exercise controllers and evaluators were also in attendance throughout the day to monitor staff as they responded to various situations that would likely result from a real earthquake disaster. Some of the core capabilities evaluated were critical transportation, operational coordination, situational assessment, public information and warning, logistics and supply chain management, and mass care and shelter.
At the end of the day, the evaluators and participants gave feedback on the exercise and response activities. Malais said that the county will use additional feedback from an “after-action review” to collect data and publish a report with suggested changes to ensure the most efficient and successful emergency response.
Malais said the county tries to hold a major in-person emergency response exercise every two years. The last full-scale exercise was held in 2019 and simulated a major dam break. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed this year’s emergency operation center exercise, which was originally supposed to be held in November. Tuesday’s exercise continued to prioritize COVID-19 precautions and participants’ temperatures were taken at the door and participants were asked to wear masks.
The state and county’s response to the pandemic influenced some aspects of the earthquake scenario. Malais explained that the pandemic’s effect on supply chains influenced them to prepare for a supply chain issue in a disaster situation, as well as take extra personal hygiene and safety precautions.
While Malais’ role Tuesday was to ensure everyone in the county was doing their job correctly in the emergency response exercise, he said it’s crucial that the public is also prepared for a large-scale disaster.
“It’s our constant goal to get the public prepared,” he explained. “We’re trying to make people become more resilient for disasters so they don’t need us as much.”
Malais said some important steps you can take at home to make sure you’re prepared include: keeping your fuel tank at least half full at all times to ensure you’ll be able to leave the area if needed; have at least seven days’ worth of food and water stored; take pictures of all important documents in case they get destroyed; and prepare a “go kit” that has extra medication, necessary supplies and extra cash in case the power goes out and you can’t use a credit card.
You can view Monterey County’s Community Resilience Plan and guidelines at https://www.co.monterey.ca.us/government/departments-a-h/administrative-office/office-of-emergency-services/resilience.
Contributed by local news sources