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The Big Difference 

Could L.A. be the next New Orleans?

Thursday, Sep 8 2005
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When a major earthquake or other disaster strikes Los Angeles, Horace Penman will be ready, and that’s good news for his neighbors in the area between the Harbor Freeway and Central Avenue, 84th Street and Slauson Avenue. Those are the boundaries of the neighborhood council known as the Community and Neighbors for Ninth District Unity, or the slightly easier-to-handle name of CANNDU. Penman made disaster preparedness a top priority for his neighborhood and set up shop at McKinley Elementary School, stocking a shed there with not just the obvious equipment like flashlights, barrels of water and ready-to-eat food, but also grislier (and potentially equally necessary) things like body bags, and lime for disinfecting. He has plotted out evacuation routes, and made sure a field at nearby Fremont High School can handle helicopters. He even has a backup plan that would send volunteers several miles down the railroad tracks to an equestrian club, where they would grab some horses and bring them back to help evacuate the neighbors.“I think I just thought a little bit out of the box,” Penman said.Now other councils like CANNDU are getting on board. Fifteen people from various spots around the city have completed a three-day seminar sponsored by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and have become emergency preparedness ambassadors. Their job is to organize entire neighborhoods like Penman’s and fill the gap between personal readiness — like extra shoes under the bed and a week’s worth of food and water in every household — and official response from city, county or federal agencies. Penman, known to everyone as Coach, wants even more — full 17 ½–hour Community Emergency Response Team training offered by the Los Angeles Fire Department.“We’re one earthquake away from being in the same position as the people in New Orleans,” said Department of Neighborhood Empowerment chief Greg Nelson. “We’re trying to create a whole bunch more Coaches to get everyone ready.”Would better preparedness on a neighborhood level have made up for the lapses in official response that marooned thousands of New Orleans residents in hellish “shelters” like the Superdome? Does it help make Los Angeles better equipped than the Gulf Coast to handle a disaster?Certainly, it can’t hurt. Elected officials and emergency preparedness professionals here have repeated now for more than a week that Los Angeles’ disaster infrastructure is second to none in the nation, tightly coordinated, well rehearsed. But most also fell back on the grim reminder that for the first three days after a catastrophe that severs communication lines and evacuation routes, residents should expect to be on their own.“Along with water, you need a can opener,” county Supervisor Mike Antonovich offered Tuesday. “A hand can opener. Your electric can opener is not going to work.”But personal preparedness aside, could it happen here? Could Los Angeles experience the meltdown that New Orleans and nearby areas have suffered over the last week and a half?There are some differences that emergency officials here say make the prospect less likely. As well as some sobering similarities.First, the obvious. The Gulf Coast was flooded, meaning that even after the deadly 145 mph winds died down, the water remained and turned evacuation and emergency-response routes into lake bottom. Thousands of square miles were — and still are — under a poisonous soup of sewage, chemicals and decaying bodies. Los Angeles has battled riots and fire, but there have always been plenty of untouched places to hole up or to organize rescue efforts.“The water makes this a completely different issue,” Councilman and former police chief Bernard Parks said. “Generally public safety officers have the ability to set up a command post on dry land. They couldn’t do that in New Orleans.”But Los Angeles is not in the clear. A tsunami can wreak the same kind of havoc here as did the one that devastated island and coastal nations in the Indian Ocean earlier this year. Storm surge can back sewage and chemicals up the Los Angeles River into the city’s low ground, which includes downtown. Geologists say an earthquake can permanently submerge some of the region’s lower coastal land.Then there is the question of evacuation. It’s unlikely an earthquake, even accompanied by widespread fire, would require the evacuation of the entire region. Experts say, generally, that a chemical attack would be contained within a fairly small area.New Orleans is surrounded by water on three sides, and the streets and highways that lead out of the city are limited and pose severe bottlenecks. Surely Los Angeles, with its massive freeway system, wouldn’t find itself in the same predicament.Unless, of course, the freeways topple due to a quake or a terrorist strike.And a freeway works only if you happen to have a car. New Orleans residents were advised to leave before Katrina hit — but no provisions were made for the thousands stranded in the city without cars.“My understanding,” said Constance Perett, chief of the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management, “is that there was a very large number of economically disadvantaged people who didn’t have vehicles. Now when you don’t have a vehicle it makes it very hard to evacuate. And one of the things I want to pursue is getting a better handle on the ability of our residents to access cars to evacuate should it be necessary.” As for the apparent failures of coordination among local, state and federal agencies that may have slowed the official response in New Orleans, it’s hard to predict exactly how officials will react under stress. But Perett said Los Angeles is part of a statewide preparedness program that repeatedly trains and tests. The county has a full-scale rollout of its emergency response set for November 17. County Supervisor Gloria Molina saw the state and county’s response to a likely influx of Katrina refugees as a good sign.“It was so well handled yesterday when everybody was able to get together,” Molina said. “There were 62 people who were part of the phone call. We are for the most part prepared to coordinate with each other on a regular basis should there be a .?.?. disaster.”What about the reports of New Orleans police officers tossing away their badges and simply giving up? Would Los Angeles officers or sheriff’s deputies abandon their posts? LAPD Lieutenant Paul Vernon noted that unlike in New Orleans, where many officers were required to live in the city and ended up losing their houses and loved ones the same way their neighbors did, LAPD officers are not.“That’s an added plus that we have,” Vernon said.In fact, police here have been criticized for commuting into town to patrol neighborhoods that are not their own, then taking off for distant suburbs when they go off duty. But in the event of an earthquake or other calamity, Vernon claimed, a far-flung police force could work to the city’s advantage.Would Los Angeles residents shoot at rescuers, the same way people reportedly did in New Orleans?It’s impossible to say. L.A. is well-armed, and anyone who lived through the 1992 civil disturbance recalls that firefighters were shot at and, in some cases, hit by gunfire. But that was a riot. Rescue and public safety workers were left unharmed when they did their work during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.In the end, the way any particular city responds to disaster may be a question for study by political scientists. A distinctive civic culture that makes people feel pride in their city, like New Yorkers on 9/11, may help people pull each other through. But what city had more of a distinctive culture and sense of civic pride than New Orleans? It may be that no amount of civic identity could survive the unimaginable scope of Katrina and its aftermath. It could be, as many commentators are claiming, that the astonishing gap between wealthy and poor residents really created two cities, a rich one that got out and an impoverished one that didn’t.Los Angeles has huge income and cultural gaps, little civic identity and a geological setting — and, with international terrorism, a political setting — that makes likely a multilayered disaster of the type that is still punishing New Orleans.So gathering canned goods and extra flashlight batteries may not be enough. And despite a well-rehearsed network of interlocking state and local emergency teams, waiting for help probably won’t be enough either.That gets us back to Coach Horace Penman, who hounds Los Angeles officials for approving new buildings with basement-level parking garages in areas of town subject to flooding. He says he has to “connive” his way around the bureaucracy to do things like taking the concrete out of the bottom of the city’s watershed. And he has to convince his friends and neighbors, and people all over town, to get their CERT training. “When you go talk to the city, bless ’em, I don’t knock it, but it thinks bureaucratic. And when it comes to an emergency, that’s no time to think bureaucratic. I don’t plan on waiting on the city. I won’t be waiting for FEMA or anyone else to say, ‘Let’s get these people out of here.’”

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