Puente prepares for “Godzilla” El Niño storm season

Out on the South Coast, weather predictions of a “Godzilla” El Niño storm season are more than a little unsettling. Long-timers remember the last El Niño winter in 1998, and the disasters it wrought on the communities of Pescadero, La Honda and surrounding areas.

Residents still tell the stories from that year: the flooding that poured 17 inches of water into homes on Stage Road, in downtown Pescadero. How it knocked out a bridge in Butano Canyon, and how it turned Pescadero High School – the community’s only emergency shelter – into a water-bound island that was all but inaccessible. Emergency vehicles found the main road into Pescadero impassable. A major landslide on Highway 84, the mountain road that links Pescadero and La Honda, shut all traffic down for weeks while the county made repairs.

Flooding in Pescadero.
Flooding in Pescadero.
In other words, locals were on their own. And they know that hasn’t changed.

“In a major natural disaster, like an earthquake or a big storm that affects the entire Peninsula, we are going to be last people that anyone is worried about,” says Ben Ranz, Community Outreach Coordinator for Puente.

“Help could come, but we’re going to be last on the list. And if a tree falls down and blocks the road – they wouldn’t be able to get us supplies, even if they wanted to,” he adds.

The farther away they live from a city center, the more acutely Coastsiders are already aware of the need to be prepared for a serious emergency, according to emergency personnel. This translates into having at least three days’ worth of food supplies, the minimum they’ll need to shelter in place.


But Puente knows many locals will need much more help than that. So Puente is working with the county to anticipate the gaps in First Aid, shelter and communication that will ensue in a major El Niño event.


“We know that we will be the responders. People are going to come to us, call us to find out information and ask what they should be doing with their families,” says Rita Mancera, Deputy Executive Director of Puente.


The good news is that Puente, and the South Coast, are getting help from the best possible source: the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services, or OES. Historically, the OES has focused on the most populous parts of the county, with occasional side-trips to offer workshops and trainings on the coast. The result was that some Coastsiders had the training and knowledge to handle a natural catastrophe, but they were poorly networked and loosely organized.


That changed in late 2013, when Nick Gottuso became the first-ever Coastside District Coordinator for San Mateo County OES. His is a full-time job overseeing rural stretches from Montara all the way down to the Santa Cruz County line, including Half Moon Bay. Gottuso has been extremely busy these past 18 months, teaming with Coastside/Cal Fire Battalion Chiefs Ari Delay and Dave Cosgrave, giving two-hour Emergency Prep presentations where he answers questions about the county’s ability to respond in an emergency and what residents can do to help themselves until real help arrives.


Gottuso and his Battalion Chief partners also offer CERT classes (Community Emergency Response Teams), which covers a lot more ground than CPR and basic First Aid. In a CERT class, for instance, adults learn search and rescue techniques like how to use cribbing to lift broken pieces of concrete off someone who may be trapped underneath.


Gottuso says the Coastside CERT classes have seen record attendance from locals who are eager for lifesaving tips. That’s a very good sign.


“The more people can take care of themselves, the more resources they can free up for someone who needs our help more than they do,” he says.


Gottuso, a former police captain, has created the Coastside Emergency Corps (CEC). The Corps encompasses 118 volunteers who have the best emergency response training, including those with professional medical skills, CERT trainees, ham radio operators, Red Cross shelter personnel, Large Animal Evacuation Group members, and people qualified to work in an OES central command setting. In an innovative program unknown elsewhere, Coastside Emergency Corps volunteers are covered as County employees for workers compensation if they are injured during training or a real activation.


Gottuso also decided to issue special holographic identification cards to Corps members, who have all been fingerprinted and have passed background checks. The cards list their skills and qualifications. They can show the cards to OES officials in an emergency and receive clearance.


Gottuso’s presence has made a big difference already, according to Ranz. Puente is now a part of the South Coast Emergency Group, a smaller subset that meets once a month to discuss emergency readiness in Pescadero and surrounding communities.


“Before Nick came, we were reliant on community people thinking and talking about disaster preparedness, but a lot of them moved away,” says Ranz. “This was a great step toward recognizing that we have special needs.”


Those needs were laid bare in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Japan in March 2011. California officials issued, and then cancelled, a tsunami evacuation notice for the Coastside when no tsunami materialized. But hundreds of locals evacuated anyway due to misinformation and the terrifying images broadcast on TV. The result: gridlock on Highway 92, which prevented the county from getting through with food supplies for Pescadero’s Red Cross emergency shelter. Puente bought food and Puente youth, many trained as CERT volunteers, stepped in because the Red Cross didn’t have bilingual staff members to translate. CERT-trained volunteers were not formally activated, and Puente staff had trouble reaching many residents by telephone.


Community Outreach Coordinator Ben Ranz, center, with members of the South Coast community.
Community Outreach Coordinator Ben Ranz, center,
with members of the South Coast community.


In brief, “it was panic,” says Mancera. “What we got out of the situation was that we were not ready.”


Puente is far more ready today than four years ago. After the tsunami scare, Puente obtained a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to train community members in CPR and First Aid. Every Puente youth and nearly every Puente adult staff member receives CPR and First Aid training and residents at nearby ranches, farms and businesses have also been trained. Three Puente employees are CERT trained and are also ham radio operators. Three of them are CEC members. Local school district staff has received similar training.


Disasters aren’t always forged by Mother Nature. Puente has a lot of practice reacting to local crises, like when a mushroom farm shut down, costing 300 jobs. Puente helped with rent payments for the newly unemployed. Or when a fire displaced nearly 30 farm workers and their families: Puente helped them find shelter.


As fall turns to winter, Puente is starting to work on a community phone tree that, once activated, will help get important information to farms and ranches far out of cell phone range. And the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has generously committed to reimburse Puente for up to $50,000 of disaster spending on behalf of the community. Puente’s longstanding partnership with the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District increases community capacity to reach the region’s adults and children.


It doesn’t take a tsunami or a 100-year storm to bring Pescadero to cut off the community from the rest of the world. A rainfall on November 1 left big puddles of standing water by the roadside, a prelude of worse yet to come. Creek flooding is a long-term struggle in the community, much of which also lies below sea level. And when it floods, the water can take days to recede.


“People need to understand that we’re all really vulnerable here,” says Kerry Lobel, Puente’s Executive Director. “Thanks to a partnership with the Red Cross, Puente has emergency bags that items can augment with their own supplies. We really encourage people to have food and water and other disaster items ready, because there’s already only a limited number of items you can buy in town.”

For more information about disaster preparedness, contact Ben Ranz at Puente at branz@mypuente.org

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