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Preparing For Next Disaster Takes Community Effort

Audio

Aired 9/22/09

Are all communities in San Diego adequately prepared for the next disaster? We speak to Ron Lane, from the County Office of Emergency Services, about what's being done locally to prepare for wildfires, earthquakes and other disasters. We also discuss a recent report about the challenges associated with preparing racially and ethnically diverse communities for a disaster.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Disasters—wildfires, earthquakes, flu outbreaks—can be terrifying to contemplate. How much more so, when you're concerned that you won't be able to understand the directions you're being given, or when the limitations of your own community haven't been factored into disaster plans. Just think back to all the Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans who were told to evacuate, but had no way to get out of town. A new report from the School of Public Health at Drexel University has tried to evaluate how disaster preparedness efforts are serving racially and culturally diverse communities. The good news is, many areas in California, including San Diego are making good efforts to include ethnic diversity in disaster planning. The bad news is many areas of the country are not, and even we are not doing enough. I’d like to welcome my guests. Dr. Dennis Andrulis is director of the Center for Health Equality at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. And, Dennis Andrulis, welcome to These Days.

DR. DENNIS ANDRULIS (Director, Center for Health Equality, the School of Public Health, Drexel University): It’s a pleasure to be there.

CAVANAUGH: Ron Lane is here. He’s director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services. Welcome, Ron.

RON LANE (Director, San Diego County Office of Emergency Services): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions about disaster preparedness, give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Now, this is National Disaster Preparedness Month and in just a few minutes we’ll get an update on how San Diego is getting prepared for a variety of potential threats. But first we’ll focus on this new report that outlines an often forgotten aspect of disaster preparedness among different ethnic communities. So, Dr. Andrulis, what were the key findings from your report?

DR. ANDRULIS: Well, the key findings, first of all, I wanted to frame this out. This is the first state-based study that looks at racially and ethnically diverse communities and their needs, their concerns. So my hat’s off to the state and the California Endowment that funded us to undertake this effort. People – the scope of why it’s important generally, you’ve got H1N1 right now that’s in the news all the time. That’s something that’s going to involve us all. It doesn’t matter what racial or ethnic group you’re from, it’s very important that everybody be up to date on this. And there’s an historic neglect of racial and ethnically diverse communities when it comes to preparedness. We’ve done some work that’s documented a really major gap. So what we found was that there really is some statewide and sub-state efforts that have been successful, have shown progress, and California is, in some ways, a leading state in addressing issues around preparedness. It’s got sources of translated materials, it’s the elevation of the issue of diversity and preparedness has come forth. There are individual programs that the California Department of Health has undertaken with the ethnic media. There’s a – there are programs like collaborating agencies responding to disasters, which work with communities very effectively. But the barriers and challenges are many, and you can frame them out in two ways. One is at the individual level. Much needs to be done regarding understanding cultures and effectively communicating with those cultures. That was clear from our study. People who are in positions to work with these communities don’t know their communities and how to reach them. And we had an example of a translation, for example, that was supposed to be around preparing foods for a disaster, if you have to be in your home for a while. Where a Chinese translation, instead of reading ‘store meat in the freezer as opposed to the refrigerator,’ it said ‘store your elephant meat in the freezer.’

CAVANAUGH: Ah, no, you don’t want that.

DR. ANDRULIS: No. No, you…

CAVANAUGH: No.

DR. ANDRULIS: …really don’t. And building trust was clear immigrant communities, it was very important to understand the immigrant communities would be suspicious perhaps of government officials regarding export – deportation that might come up. And then also, if you are a preparedness person going into a community to say, hi, I’m here to talk about something that might happen down the line, when in some of these diverse communities, there are disasters already present and if you don’t connect with people at their own levels, putting food on the table, toxic dumps, other issues that are in communities, you could really create some major problems. And finally, just a note…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DR. ANDRULIS: …on geographic variations, places like San Diego, LA, San Francisco, there are some concentration of services but you look at the Central Valley, central coast, desert Sierra, other places, not so good. Lack of funding, lack of collaboration, and people really not knowing what the left hand and the right hand are doing.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now in gathering, you gathered data on ethic and diverse communities that are pretty much slipped through the cracks in a lot of these planning, disaster planning ideas, and I’m wondering, how did you find out this data? How did you find these communities and how they were being underserved?

DR. ANDRULIS: Well, we have a considerable set of contacts within the state. We’ve created a National Consensus Panel on Diversity and Preparedness of which members from California sit on that panel. And they’ve issued a national consensus statement on diversity and preparedness. We have worked with the California Endowment. We also visited 150, almost 150 websites. We used the websites and our contacts there to identify key people in public agencies at community levels, in private organizations working with diverse communities, to interview them on priorities, barriers and challenges.

CAVANAUGH: And in addition to the individual level that you were talking about, the – I think the institutional level is another part of your study and that is getting in people of diverse communities to actually sit down at the table when disaster planning is being done.

DR. ANDRULIS: Yeah, one of the major problems is people don’t understand the vital role both in terms of coeducation of agencies and coeducation of communities, as well as the issues of trust and bringing people into the process early on. It’s a very critical component of any actions on preparedness that this has got to – if you’re going to sustain your efforts, this has got to be something that engages these communities early on, bring everybody to the table, don’t consider it an afterthought after you’ve made your plans separate and apart from what the community’s situation is, its needs and its objectives.

CAVANAUGH: That is Dr. Dennis Andrulis. He’s Director of the Center for Health Equality at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. That university has just come out with a new report about the aspect of disaster preparedness among different ethnic communities. I’d like to invite in and welcome Ron Lane into the conversation now. He’s here. He’s Director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services. I want to remind our audiences that they can join the conversation too at 1-888-895-5727. So, Ron, you’re on the ground. I mean, you – there’s a report here telling us how things are going on the ground, but you’re right in the community. I wonder what some of the challenges that you face in trying to prepare the entire county, people of all ethnic communities for a disaster.

LANE: Right, I appreciate Dennis’ report because it is very illuminating and we’re in total agreement that we recognize that a majority of our citizens can follow our directions during a disaster and are prepared and everything else, but we have a segment of our population that are more vulnerable, that have special needs, not only the ethnically diverse communities but we also have homeless, we have medically fragile, we have the elderly, all who need help and we’re – what we find and what we’re most concerned about is the most vulnerable citizens are the ones who suffer most during disasters. They’re the ones least able to adjust to a disaster. So we have taken this very seriously in San Diego with our partners and all the agencies, law enforcement, fire, and we have a very robust program to try to reach out to those communities. And what we find is the battle is really fought at the individual level. I mean, we can have great outreach and things like that but it’s the individual firefighter and Red Cross worker and church and everything else that really makes a difference in the community. So we’re in agreement with Dennis. We try to make sure that our emergency preparedness message gets out in diverse languages and as many languages as possible and we think that’s critical during a disaster because communication is key and it’s vital that we be able to communicate with all our citizens that are here.

CAVANAUGH: How many languages do you have to include in your…

LANE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …literature?

LANE: Well, on our website, we use four. We have things in – all our documents are in Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese as well as English. Our website is completely duplicated in Spanish as well. So we find that those are the ones essentially that we really focus on although there are other languages out there.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of outreach programs do you have? Do you use – I thought that was very innovative listening to Dennis talk about using websites to identify different ethnic communities and perhaps the leaders in those communities. How do you go about that? And what is the outreach like?

LANE: We feel that the most important aspect is to use advocacy groups. There’s a lot of groups out there that look out for whether it’s migrant farm workers or community for the deaf or dialysis users. All those groups have advocacy groups and we meet with them regularly and we’re very active with them because they’re the ones who’ll be able to get our message out during a disaster and advise us what issues they have and make sure that we can take care of those issues.

CAVANAUGH: Of course migrant workers are a very important part of this because I remember there were some deaths last time during the fires that we had in 2007…

LANE: Umm…

CAVANAUGH: …of migrant workers. And how do you reach people who are perhaps here illegally or people who don’t really have an address or the kind of internet access and the cell phones that the rest of us have? What are you doing in that area?

LANE: Well, we’ve been working with a coalition of advocacy groups to try to get the warning systems into these migrant communities because it’s very important to us to be able to communicate with them and let them know that there’s a fire or danger coming so they can evacuate and take precautions. So we’ve done things as far as trying to get cell phones into those camps and have them registered to a nearby government address or something so that when we call a nearby address, they will get notified that there’s a fire. And a lot of things like that to try to reach into that community and make sure that we have communication and a lot of it is through faith-based groups and other advocacy groups who can assist us in working with this population during a disaster.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DR. ANDRULIS: I think that point that’s raised right there is extremely important. What you’re doing needs to be done. You can’t have the government agency coming into these communities and saying, hi, I’m from the government, I’m here to help you, when people are fearful of the government. But working through these advocacy groups or community-based organizations is key in all this.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dr. Andrulis, what other recommendations do you make in the report outside of, you know, not having a government agent come in and knock on the door and say this is what you need to do the next time there’s a fire. What are some of the things that people can take away from this report?

DR. ANDRULIS: Well, as I mentioned, the importance of community engagement for the long term where you build trust and knowledge becomes a centerpiece for the work that needs to be done to move preparedness ahead, so clearly community inclusion engagement. I think, advocacy groups are critical. But I think you even have to drill down beyond advocacy groups to find key informants, people that are looked to in communities for a reference point, places that are looked to for reference points in communities, so that there are dimensions to the idea of working with communities that I think all need to be considered. The issues around training, supporting training for emergency responders that engage community-based organizations in that process so that they are seeing real life situations when it comes to the – what people face in preparing for and responding to emergencies. Encouraging government agency and community partnerships, as was mentioned, become, again, central so that people are coordinating and sharing information. And then finally, for California, as it is for other states, but California in particular, I think people who are concerned about this need to be extremely careful about the erosion of funding that is likely to endanger many of the efforts to make progress in that area within the state given the precarious condition of the state budget. This could be an easy target for elimination for these programs.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dennis, when these outreach efforts are not made, when there are communities that are not reached specifically to find out what their needs are, what kind of results do we have in disasters? What did you find out in terms of what communities told you about their reaction to – when things go terribly wrong?

DR. ANDRULIS: Well, I think there’s a likely – What we found was that there is a likelihood of misinformation, of listening to sources that might not have complete information. You know, as was stressed by both of us, the issues around communication becomes vital about fear of how people will respond to the needs of certain populations. That you’ll be deported, as I said, becomes the primary driver instead of let me understand what’s happening here. And that can hold for, as well, legal immigrants as well as undocumented because the documented immigrants may also say I’m going to get wrapped up in this whole – the whole system of Customs agents and others that will be affecting my family and me. And I think the other major concern for the state, that was evident from our report, was that you have people in other areas besides the central urban communities that are – have been, if not left out of the mix, at least have very few resources to draw on and, thus, as the disasters, preparedness issues come up, they’ve got nowhere to look or limited resources to look so we have to – I think within the State of California, look statewide, truly, rather than saying, okay, California and San Francisco, LA, San Diego, they’re fine and, therefore, the job’s on its way of being done.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Dennis Andrulis and Ron Lane, and we’re talking about disaster preparedness. And, Ron, we are in National Disaster Preparedness Month and of course what we hear this week is a red flag warning for our area, and of course that makes everybody a little nervous. Of course wildfire is one of the biggest disasters to be concerned about in San Diego. What are some of the others?

LANE: Okay, wildfire is by far the most likely disaster. And as we’ve seen two major wildfires in the past five years, that’s the one that citizens really got to take seriously. Likewise, we have earthquakes. The Rose Canyon fault going down along I-5 is a very dangerous earthquake zone. The likelihood of that going anytime soon is remote. I mean, it’s – that is – would be devastating but the likelihood isn’t as great as the wildfire. We also have the H1 pandemic and always the threat of terrorism. Those are our main concerns.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, let’s concentrate on the wildfire because that is the issue of the moment. I think all of us have heard and heard and heard and heard about how to get ready for a wildfire but since we are in a red flag warning, I think we’ve just passed the mark here and we’re actually in one. When people hear that, what should they do?

LANE: Well, they should double check to make sure that they are individually prepared. Now that we’re in red flag warning, it’s not the time to go out and clear brush. A lot of fires have been started by people with lawnmowers creating a spark, and several of the fires we’ve had in the last few years have been doing – have been caused by that, so don’t do that today. What we do recommend, though, is that you essentially do a fifteen minute drill. If you – Last – During the 2007 wildfire, thousands of citizens got the call in the middle of the night and so that – you have fifteen minutes to get out of their home. You have a fire approaching your community. If – I want all your listeners to think about that and say, well, if they got that call tonight, are they prepared? Do they know what to do with their pets? Do they know where their medicine, their key documents, their valuable photos – you know, we saw a lot of heartwrenching stories last firestorm where it was 1700 people lost their homes and you consistently saw people sifting through their homes, saying I wish I had grabbed this, I wish I had taken this out. So we ask people to take that – take a few minutes and plan for that fifteen minutes, and make sure that their family members know what to do, where their evacuation zones are. There’s a lot of last minute things you can do. If you’re in the fire risk area, I would seriously recommend that you look at your defensible space. A lot of homes were lost in 2007, not because they didn’t have 100 feet of defensible space but because it was defeated because there was a trash can that was left next to the home and the fire started that way or lawn furniture was blown by 70 mile an hour winds through windows and the embers got in that way. Wood was stacked next to the home. So there’s a lot of different things around the home that you can do a last minute check to make sure that you’re prepared.

CAVANAUGH: This is always a sort of nerve wracking time of year in San Diego but, of course, as you mentioned, this year we have the H1N1 virus. And so is that an issue that the County Office of Emergency Services is involved in?

LANE: Yes. It’s mainly a public health issue at this moment but at the point that it becomes impacting citizens and we start having high absentee rates or closing schools or anything like that occurs, if it does get bad, then it becomes an emergency and essentially a disaster response that we have to get involved in as well.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of plans do you have for that? Do – I mean, I guess you’ve been just meeting about that and…

LANE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …you have all sorts of contingency plans.

LANE: Right. We have very extensive contingency plans for both mild – or mild, moderate or severe pandemics. There’s a whole slew of things that can occur especially with our full – our jails and a whole other – whole slew of different ramifications that we have contingency plans for. And this community is prepared. We have an excellent public health officer in Dr. Wilma Wooten, who is leading the charge. We’ve been out meeting, speaking of the stuff that Dennis has been talking about, we’ve been out meeting and – with our coalition partners and making sure that we have – getting the message out.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m also wondering, we were talking a little bit, you and I, Ron, about this really great website you have. Tell us a little bit…

LANE: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …about that.

LANE: We encourage everybody to go to readysandiego.org and on that website, you can get all the information you’d ever want about disaster preparedness, everything about wildfires, earthquake preparedness, just a plethora of different disaster information that can be helpful to our citizens to prepare. It’s in multiple languages and we encourage everybody to go there.

DR. ANDRULIS: I would also suggest that for folks who are interested in the diversity issue, we’ve established a national resource center, diversitypreparedness.org, that has translated materials, research articles, practical information. We’ve translated materials into many languages. So that might serve as another reference point.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis, I’m wondering what your hopes are for this report, how this information will be used.

DR. ANDRULIS: Well, I’m hoping that it’s a galvanizing and a report that coalesces communities around the state and brings the state itself into that coalescing, that coalition building, that raises, elevates, the importance of communities in this process and also says we’ve got to do a better job of learning about who we need to reach, what they’re about, what their concerns are, and at the same time do a better job of talking to each other and making sure that we are communicating in a way that when we go to these communities, we’re talking in one voice and we’re also including them in that voice.

CAVANAUGH: And in the last couple of minutes that we have, I did want you to be able to highlight something that I think got lost in conversation and that is your concerns about what the budget, the state budget, might be doing to our disaster preparedness, especially the outreach to different ethnic communities.

DR. ANDRULIS: Yeah, well, the concern is that a lot of times the programs that are critical and these preparing – preparedness efforts and responding efforts are seen as expendable and as the state and local agencies and departments and governments deal with the crisis of their budgets, that they might say, well, you know, this is something that’s, oh, that’s – might be coming down the line somewhere but, you know, I have to fund this program right now. And there are people asking for money or I’ve got Medicaid dollars that need to go. It’s a very difficult circumstance but if you cut off funding for these programs, you might very well be cutting off a support for a future disaster to mitigate what that disaster may mean for communities at many places across the state. So it would be very short-sighted to take an axe to these community based programs, these efforts that are occurring through state and local support to say that they’re not as important. They are vital, both in the short term and the long term.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Dennis Andrulis, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DR. ANDRULIS: It’s our pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And Ron Lane, Director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

LANE: Okay. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Ron. You’ve been listening to These Days. I want to let you know that you can get all the website addresses that you heard going online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us. Coming up, we’ll meet the curator couple from the San Diego Museum of Art. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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