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What The Blackout Taught Us About Disaster Preparedness


Aired 9/12/11

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."

Workers serve pizza to customers outside of Filippi's Pizza after a massive b...
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Above: Workers serve pizza to customers outside of Filippi's Pizza after a massive blackout hit Southern California September 8, 2011 in San Diego, California.

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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Avatar for user 'Porfitron'

Porfitron | September 12, 2011 at 7:37 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

While I think @SDGE did a great job live tweeting the latest info, the article is incorrect stating that te emergency kit tweet went out to its 17,000 followers. @SDGE had maybe 4-7K followers in that time frame and grew dramatically throughout the evening as social media users spread the word. Other local twitter personas saw bumps in followers, too, including @MayorSanders. Theses details reveal that there is still some ignorance out there around social media and at times it takes events like this to get people to make better use of these communication services. Twitter was way more useful early on, especially before the radio sations got their act together.

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Avatar for user 'dorndiego'

dorndiego | September 12, 2011 at 9:33 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

In the little bit of coverage I've read there's been
little attention to the nature of the rumors that
circulated amongst people I encountered. A young
guy said it had been sabotage by the president designed
to argue the need for "green" energy. A young
couple told me that Navy friends of theirs had said
their command estimated power would be out as much as
4 days. That mild form of paranoia seemed to contrast
with the undeniable good will and even enjoyment of
the unforeseen that people were showing in my
neighborhood, where many broke out the grills and
made hamburger meals by candlelight.
I'd also say that AT&T failed. I saw lots of people with
glowing cell phones. My wife and I could not call out
and received no calls.
each other th

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Avatar for user 'jakevalentine'

jakevalentine | September 12, 2011 at 9:34 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

My friends and co-workers have always given me a hard time (in good nature) because I have been anal about ensuring my family is as prepared as possible for a disaster. Now everybody wants me to help them make a plan for their family. At my house the power outage was the smallest of speed bumps because we didn't have to worry. We already have several months worth of food, plenty of water (55 gallon BPA-free water barrell and half dozen cases of bottled), radios (battery, solar, and hand cranked power), lights (LED head lanterns were very useful), plug-in capable large battery packs, and cooking fuel (propane for camp stove and 4+ bags of charcoal for grill). After ensuring my neighbors were good-to-go, we picked tomatoes/basil/watermelon/eggplant from the garden, cooked eggplant/sausage on the grill, and had a great family dinner. Something I hadn't even considered was the 2 dozen solar powered outdoor lights in put in last spring......they kept the primeter of the yard lit up quite well along with the moonlight. The hardest part was the first couple hours before everybody was home. Once everybody arrived safely at home, we cashed in our preparedness dividends by relaxing.

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Avatar for user 'NUTS805'

NUTS805 | September 12, 2011 at 10:20 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

I have read the comments and seems only one spoke about the real issue. Are you prepared for such a disaster? My family did as the writer with a plan for his family. Prepare TODAY. Not tomorrow or next Saturday....Today. Can goods, toilet paper. Water....and an exit plan. Today. Don't blame the radio stations, the news casters..etc for not prepareing correctly. It is YOUR job to make sure your good to go .. when disaster comes. We live in a world of disaster so it should not come to your oops surprise mode.

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Avatar for user 'Rockbus'

Rockbus | September 12, 2011 at 4:43 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

I agree whole heartedly that it is your responsibility to be prepared for a disaster, not the city, not your neighbors, not the Red Cross, not the National Guard, you as the head of your house hold is ultimately responsible. You cannot rely on Cell phones, cable TV or internet for information. Old school off air AM and FM radio is you most reliable media to distribute information to the masses. Old School POTS telephones, not a wireless handsets, is also another reliable method of communications. If you really want reliable comms have every one in your family get Ham radio licenses and carry around a handheld. anyone can get a license now that they require no Code.

You probably have half of what your need, food, water, sanitation, camping stuff at home already. All you need to do is stock up enough for 3 day for each family member and rotate though your stock. Just store your stuff so you can get them easily if you need to evacuate your house (ie fire or earthquake).

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Avatar for user 'bstanley'

bstanley | September 14, 2011 at 7:53 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

2 Words... Home Inventory

Remind your family, friends, clients, and fans, particularly at a time when natural disasters are on the rise, that a photographic inventory of all their belongings, big and small, can be a lifesaver in the event their home is ever lost to fire, flood, or other disasters.

And maybe one day be their hero!

As part of September’s Disaster Preparedness Month, DocuHome is offering it’s home inventory software for FREE.

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Avatar for user 'love102025'

love102025 | September 15, 2011 at 3:29 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

THE OLD SCHOOL ALKALINE BATTERY AND TVS are one of the best ways too i agree with "Rockbus" china stores are very re;lible and never got riped off i buy staff out f chna all the time cos they use the NEW Digtial staff but the old fanions ALKALINES i had my readio and tv working while many did not cos they had no way of chagering it i do have a 400 watt solor ganorator but prefer the old way much easyer (if you stock up on battiers like i do and never have to run to the store at the last minute) odly enough this brings people closer together

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