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Sonoma County studies disaster response, rolls out new tools for public

Rescue workers search for survivors at an apartment building located on the street corner of Amsterdam and Laredo, that collapsed during an earthquake in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Tuesday's magnitude 7.1 earthquake has stunned central Mexico, killing more than 200 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

CHRISTI WARREN,

Zach Hamill is constantly thinking about natural disasters. As an emergency coordinator for Sonoma County, it’s his job. It also means that for the past few weeks, he’s been watching first response at disasters efforts closely.

There has been no shortage of deadly case studies, including monster hurricanes that tore across Texas, Florida and the Caribbean and the pair of earthquakes that rocked Mexico this month, killing more than 300 people.

Hamill’s department looks at every major disaster as an opportunity to learn, and to improve the county’s own disaster plan.

“We can play Monday morning quarterback all we want, but one of the things I will be looking for in the coming months is what didn’t go so well, and what did go well, so we can learn from those best practices and adopt some of those things here in Sonoma County that are applicable,” he said.

Those lessons will be disseminated through emergency responder networks and personal contacts, he said, but they’re also addressed at an annual conference of the California Emergency Services Association, where emergency coordinators across the state come together to learn new tools to better serve the public when disasters hit.

At last year’s conference, he said, the 2015 Valley fire, which ravaged more than 76,000 acres of Lake County, destroyed almost 2,000 structures and killed four people, was a major topic.

This year’s focus will be the response to the Oroville Dam failure and resulting evacuation of nearly 188,000 people in Butte County.

Next year, Hamill said, Hurricane Harvey will probably feature significantly in the program.

“So Houston got something like 40 inches of rain in 48 hours, that’s pretty unprecedented for out here, but there are some things that we can take and learn from that, like how they conducted their evacuations and their emergency notifications and their care and shelter of their populace.”

Most of the steps Sonoma County has taken to prepare for natural disasters are available for the public to explore online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/FES/Emergency-Management, including interactive maps that emergency coordinators and first responders use to show emergency shelters, assistance centers, medical care locations, dump sites and other services as they become necessary and available during disasters.

One of the newest services the county offers is SoCoAlert, an emergency message system that allows first-response teams to send cellphone users notifications ranging from evacuations orders to advisories on drinking water contamination. To sign up, go to socoalert.com.

The site also offers tips on preparing home survival kits and best practices for communicating during a disaster, when phone lines can be jammed and cellphone towers knocked out — something emergency coordinators learned after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“You may not be able to call, but a text message will go through,” Hamill said.

It’s also good to have an out-of-state contact who can act as a coordinator when local phone lines are jammed.

“The local phone exchange may be impacted, but someone in Washington or Florida may not be impacted,” Hamill said. “So if everyone calls Uncle Joe in Reno, Nevada, then Uncle Joe is the one who coordinates that (everyone) is safe, everyone’s checked in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.