Santa Paula Times

Santa Paula is preparing for possible El Nino emergencies including an exercise last week when the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated at City Hall. Jaime Fontes, city manager, offered some comments before the half-day exercise, which covered a three-day period of storm activity, commenced.

El Nino: Worst-case scenario exercise held for potential storms

January 20, 2016
Santa Paula News

El Nino is on its way and Santa Paula is preparing to meet it head on if an exercise held Thursday at City Hall that featured various storm related scenarios ranging from flooding and citywide isolation due to highway and road closures to citizens being ordered to boil water due to the sewer system being swamped.

Each department in the city was involved in the exercise with personnel from the Ventura County Officer of Emergency Services overseeing the reaction to mass flooding, slides, the need of 10,000 sandbags and sweeps of homeless encampments along the Santa Clara River to save lives.

Participants set up in the City Council chambers transformed to an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) with long tables holding telephones and computer equipment for troubleshooting responders, white boards lining the walls for updates and maps showing areas subject to evacuation and other needs during the deluge of rain and more rain. 

Frontline responders such as fire, police, public works and building and safety took to the streets and gave regular updates on the situation.

Residents south of Highway 126 were reported to be without water service with an initial estimate of five days for repairs,

“Emergency incidents are a lot easier to handle,” said Santa Paula Fire Captain Jerry Byrum. “It’s an eye-opener to me how it’s handed on the back end,” inside the council chambers.

SPFD Assistant Chief Keith Gurrola and Captain Dustin Lazenby were running the exercise that included personnel from every department in the city. 

The scenario spanned three days of building emergencies due to the worsening storm, each day presenting more problems.

Following heavy overnight rain on the first day an additional 10,000 sandbags were ordered for public and emergency responders use as well as other precautionary measures taken such as advising some voluntary evacuations and SPPD visiting homeless encampments near waterways to tell people they must leave. Plans are made to open the EOC in two days if the weather conditions continue.

The next day sees the closing of Ojai Road north from Bridge Road due to Santa Paula Creek overflowing, South Mountain Road inaccessible due to mud and rock slides, street flooding occurring throughout the city, some reports of runoff from above residences and the closure of some sections of Highway 126.  

When the EOC opened at 8 a.m. it was with limited staff due to city employees living out of town unable to get to City Hall.

The shortage was reversed by about 10 a.m. when  more employees  arrived to tackle the emergency. Organizing rest for fire and police personnel was addressed as well as all departments to start putting together a lost of concerns to not only handling the current situation but also action options for a worsening emergency. 

All personnel were told they would compare notes in two hours. 

During the debriefing several participations brought up the same point, lack of personnel that lives within city limits. 

SPPD Sgt. Scott Varner noted that lower level personnel should be prepared to take on heavier duties until — and if — supervisory staff arrives. 

In case of city emergency, “We have to make sure anybody could step into our roles,” said SPPD Commander Ish Cordero.

Fire Chief Rick Araiza noted, “It’s been years since we did a full EOC” at City Hall, with recent exercises held in the mobile unit. 

“There was no duplication of effort,” said Police Chief Steve McLean who noted the simple board postings were a highly effective way to share information and plan next steps. 

Gil Zavloda and Ivan Rodriguez from the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services that is concentrating on response to El Nino events shared their observations and gave suggestions.

In the case of a serious El Nino emergency said Zavloda the city should not hesitate to declare a local emergency that would not only allow emergency spending but also send a message to the public that the city has taken firm charge of the situation.

In turn, if the city required financial assistance from the county they could say “you’ve exhausted” local resources.

Public Works Director Brian Yanez agreed but also noted the city’s boundaries “are very unique,” with adjacent areas of the county that would benefit from city help.

Lazenby said the county’s multi-hazardous plan is 108 pages of potential emergencies that details creek weaknesses, flood paths, areas prone to slides, critical facilities and other information.

“It’s nice to know what we’re getting into so we’re not surprised,” he noted.

Gurrola said he was “very confident” that staff could handle any emergency, especially one that has the potential to be as vast as the projected El Nino.

“…I think this overwhelmed you,” he said, “but that’s what it’s supposed to do for a worst case scenario.” º