Gilroy is participating for the second time in a countywide disaster preparedness plan, called the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan. The intent is to help agencies identify how to prevent safety hazards before and after major disasters.
There's a reason for doing it now: grant money. The plan was created in response to the federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. Under the act, any municipality with a FEMA-approved plan can be eligible for grant monies to fix hazards both before and after a disaster, said Santa Clara County’s consultant, Corinne Bartshire.
Gilroy officials are looking for public feedback on their plan through the end of May, although they will continue to collect comments beyond the end of the month. Comments on the county's plan should be sent to Bartshire. Comments specific to Gilroy’s plan can also be sent to fire Capt. Roy Shackel.
The benefit to being a part of the plan is being able to apply for federal and state grant monies to spend on the top-identified priorities, said Office of Emergency Services Director Kirsten Hofmann. Any city or county with a plan approved by FEMA and the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) can apply for funds when they become available.
There are also federal grant monies that become immediately available after disasters to reduce hazards for the next potential crisis, Bartshire said.
Joe Kline, Gilroy's public information officer, said the city is always looking for grant monies to expand what officials are already doing to better protect and serve the community.
Other benefits to disaster planning include a better-prepared and resilient community, and eligibility for waiver of a 6.25 percent local match for public assistance after a disaster, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments, which oversees the hazard mitigation plan for the entire region.
With today’s tight budgets, there aren’t a lot of grant monies to go around, Hofmann said. But as they do become available, the county plans to focus on the top five priorities over the next five years.
The focus will be on unreinforced masonry or soft-story buildings (where the bottom floor is either a parking garage or retail spaces with large windows), wildfires, lack of information-sharing between agencies, flooding and dam failures.
Gilroy officials put ground shaking from earthquakes and flooding from either streams or dam failures at the top of their list.
Retrofitting—or in some cases replacing—unreinforced masonry or soft-story buildings is No. 1 on the county’s list. The county’s report points to the collapse of apartment buildings in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake as evidence of how dangerous multi-story buildings over ground-level parking or retail stores can be.
Damage in that earthquake led the state to amend its building code to prevent future collapses, according to the report. Buildings are required to be retrofitted by 2016.
Kline said the city has passed ordinances to address unreinforced masonry buildings, out of concern for safety in the downtown area in case of an earthquake.
Flooding and dam failure was another top concern of Gilroy officials. Kline said work has been done over the years by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding from local streams during storms. Although he said the city is much safer now than in the past, the possibility still exists.
Wildfires made it into the county’s top five concerns, because of cities like Gilroy, where the county’s wild lands come into contact with people’s homes and businesses. The county’s report cited the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire as an important reminder of the worst that can happen in that case.
Kline said Gilroy has been aggressive in its planning for safety in the hillsides, with its requirements for access for emergency vehicles, sprinklers inside homes and usage of building materials to minimize damage in case of a fire.
Another priority in the county report, information-sharing between agencies, revealed that there is no system for agencies and companies that build and maintain infrastructure to report to the county or other governmental agencies when there is major failure.
The most glaring example listed was the PG&E San Bruno natural gas explosion in September 2010. The current way to handle major infrastructure failures is to react after the fact, the report says, and glean lessons from the experience. Officials said they wanted to be proactive, by sharing information among agencies in advance of any major events.
Most of these priorities sound big and bureaucratic, but there is something everyone can do: Personally prepare.
“It’s really important to draw everyone’s attention to personal preparedness,” Hofmann said. A major disaster, like a massive earthquake, could cause failures of infrastructure and communications. Being ready to take care of oneself and family for up to three days on one's own, she said, “is huge.”
Hofmann encouraged citizens to visit the county’s website to learn more about how to be prepared.