Launch Slideshow

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Disaster blasters

Disaster blasters

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    While flames usually don't damage roads, they destroy other infrastructure assets. San Diego County lost 17,000 linear feet of guardrail, six drainage culverts, and 200 signs in last fall's wildfires. Photo: Bill Polick

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    San Diego County homeowners can grade property up to 200 cubic yards and 8 feet high without a permit. To help fire victims avert flooding, the public works department issued guidelines for installing wooden barriers, block walls, slope drains, and planted or seeded slopes, and gave away sand bags and the 20-foot fiber rolls pictured here. Photo: Bill Polick

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“You just don't let water shut down,” Thorner says. “[In a disaster], public works employees keep working.”

None of her 86 employees lost their homes, but they did shut off water to 17 homes and businesses that were destroyed within the district's boundaries.

The San Diego County Public Works Department was particularly ready for the firestorm. Employees simply duplicated emergency response and cleanup procedures they followed four years earlier during the state's worst firestorms.

“It's ironic that during the week of the wildfire, we were concluding the audit with FEMA for the 2003 fires,” Turbyfill says. “A lot of our response was much faster because we'd been there and done that before.” — Craig Guillot is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.

Top-response contracts

How to fund operations during the 72 hours between a disaster and the arrival of federal aid.

Whether it's a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wildfire, disasters generate debris. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires contracts to be bid competitively. In an emergency, the bid process slows response efforts.

Depending upon the scope of the disaster, existing contractors may not be able to handle an oversized job. To ensure debris keeps moving, have pre-existing contracts in place.

“Anticipating that need and negotiating and changing language in existing contracts that applies only to emergency situations is a practical approach,” says emergency-management consultant Larry Lux of Lux Advisors Ltd.

In addition to considering emergency-only, as-needed contracts for guardrail repair after disasters like wildfires, the San Diego County Department of Public Works is applying Lux's logic to other potential emergencies.

“We'll compare and contrast what kinds of disasters we run into, and what kind of materials and contracts we'd need in each case,” says director Donna Turbyfill. “We've realized that fire disasters can be hugely different from earthquakes.”

Turbyfill recommends developing a detailed response plan for what's most likely to happen in your service area, not what may happen. A department that should be concerned about, say, flooding shouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time planning a detailed response to a bombing.

Also, be prepared to provide extensive documentation on not only what work was performed, but why it was done.

And make sure there's enough emergency capital on hand to deal with emergencies.

San Diego County's reserve fund includes $20 million for “unanticipated needs, events, or for various uncertainties that may occur during the fiscal year.” When public works' cleanup efforts exceed the limit, as they did last fall, Turbyfill turns to the Federal Highway Administration and the National Resources Conservation Service. The California Office of Emergency Services funds her department's efforts until FEMA reimbursements come through.