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What The Blackout Taught Us About Disaster Preparedness

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There are questions about whether the region was really prepared for a shutdown of this scale.

— Two hours into the blackout, San Diego Gas & Electric sent this tweet to its more than 17,000 followers: "If you have a personal family emergency plan, please activate it now."

Meanwhile, AM station KOGO, served as a lifeline--one of only a couple of radio news stations that remained on air. The anchor warned listeners to not to use landlines or cell phones unless it was absolutely necessary; drivers were asked to stay off roads.

But if you didn't use Twitter, a battery-powered radio, or the one in your car, you were still in the dark as to the why the blackout.

Enrique Ruiz was stuck at a gas station with an empty tank on his way to pick up his daughter from school. Back at home, he admitted, his family didn't have an emergency kit, nor enough food and water to last them three days, as is recommended.

"We have to get some tanks ready, and water, and lights," said Ruiz. "I mean, the city has got to be more prepared for this kind of situation. It's not the first time it's ever happened."

Actually, a blackout of this magnitude and duration was a first for San Diego. But what is the government's responsibility for providing the public with resources during an emergency?

The office of San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn sent pamphlets on disaster preparedness to all county residents five years ago. The piece of paper included details about when to evacuate, how to designate an emergency contact, and what to keep at home--things like a flashlight, batteries, prescription medications and a survival kit for the car.

"If you want to get something good out of this, the lights were out--there was very little TV," said Horn, referring to the seven-hour blackout that took many residents by surprise. "But if you had prepared, you were prepared."

A county survey commissioned around the time of the 2006 disaster preparedness campaign, found that an average of 50 percent of county residents were prepared for an emergency. After the mailer went out, the survey found just a 4 percent increase in that number.

"For me, this was what I call a perfect storm," said Rick Hinrichs, Managing Director for Disaster Services at the Red Cross in San Diego. "We were hit by something that was sudden, it disrupted communication, it wasn't expected, and it created a whole lot of general uncertainty as to what was happening. And the timing for this was also perfect in that it occurred at around 3:30."

It happened right in the middle of the day, when kids get out of school and rush-hour traffic begins. Hinrichs admitted that at first, the Red Cross was as unaware as the general public about the reasons for the blackout and how best to proceed.

"The community and the response community was prepared," said Hinrichs. "But I think where we broke down a bit is in the public messaging to make sure that people know and remember where these resources are."

The resources are out there, indeed. Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, local governments in San Diego County have received $170 million for infrastructure and technology for disaster preparedness and homeland security.

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