Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Quake ceremony turns attention to disaster preparedness


Jenn Harris, a buyer for Cliff's Variety in the Castro, sets up the emergency preparedness display window, timed to this week's anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
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The anniversary events this week commemorating the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated much of San Francisco are once again turning attention to the importance of being prepared for when the next big seismic event hits the Bay Area.

The city's Department of Emergency Management is encouraging residents to assemble earthquake preparedness kits they can store at home. The agency has teamed up with local businesses to promote its "Who Are You Shopping For?" campaign through the end of April.

"It highlights the importance of buying emergency supplies for you and your neighbors," Castro resident Jim Turner, the agency's private sector liaison, explained to Castro merchants at their April meeting.

The participating stores, such as Walgreens and Cliff's Variety in the Castro, will have shopping lists detailing the sort of supplies people should have at home in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. The city instructs people to have enough supplies to last three days.

The family-run Cliff's has been urging its customers to assemble the earthquake kits for years, and rotates a window display promoting emergency preparedness between the annual 1906 quake events in April or in October around the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

"We think emergency preparedness is very important. We encourage people every year to put together their kits," said Terry Asten Bennett, the store's manager.

The specific needs of LGBT people during disasters has received little attention within the emergency preparedness field, which takes a broader perspective toward its work, noted a Bay Area Reporter article last month. But that is slowly changing, as evidenced by a first-of-its-kind training designed specifically for LGBT people and community-based organizations launched this spring by Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, known as CARD, in Alameda County.

In San Francisco, the level of disaster preparedness varies at LGBT nonprofits depending on the services they provide.

Asked if the city's HIV/AIDS Provider Network had ever worked with an adviser on developing a disaster plan, AIDS Emergency Fund Executive Director Mike Smith said he couldn't recall the coalition having done so.

At his own agency, which helps people living with HIV and AIDS pay their rent or medical bills, Smith said there would be little he and his staff could do in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster.

"We have a plan. We won't be open until the banks are open," said Smith. "I don't know what anyone would do with a check from AEF until the banks are open again."

Other agencies that provide direct services, from housing to medical care, have much more detailed plans covering a variety of potential disaster scenarios.

At Project Open Hand, which feeds people with HIV and AIDS and other life-threatening diseases, staff regularly participates in earthquake drills and revisits its emergency preparedness plans quarterly.

Steve Hunter, the agency's director of building operations, oversees the food bank's disaster planning. The contingency plans include everything from educating staff on the need for them to have their earthquake kits at home to backup methods for feeding the agency's clients.

Project Open Hand has a small generator to run some of its systems if the power goes out. It also stockpiles frozen cooked meals that could be thawed out and distributed to clients, as well as what are called heater meals that come equipped with their own heating mechanism.

"Our goal is almost immediate service," said Hunter, who lived through the 1989 quake and whose wife is a member of their Richmond District neighborhood emergency response team. "If it just came down to where we could only distribute bread or cheese sandwiches, we could still pack them in our generating line."

The agency is also part of the Tenderloin Hunger Task Force, comprised of nearby agencies such as Glide Memorial Church and St. Anthony's that have banded together and devised plans for assisting each other in the event a disaster of any kind disrupts even one agency's ability to provide meals.

"We all have emergency food on hand, emergency water and we all have radios to communicate between ourselves," said Hunter.

At Maitri, a Castro AIDS hospice that cares for up to 15 patients at any given time, its licensing by various government agencies requires it to have plans in place in the event of a disaster. It too has worked collaboratively with other hospices and the nearby Davies Medical Center off Duboce Park should it need to relocate its patients.

"Since we are a 24-hour residential care facility for the chronically ill, our licensing requires us to have up-to-date evacuation plans," said Maitri Executive Director Michael Smithwick, who also lived through the 1989 quake and has an extensive disaster kit stored at his house.

So far the agency has never had to evacuate its building or transfer patients elsewhere, said Smithwick. He and his staff do annual trainings to prepare for what to do in the case of a fire or evacuation.

"My personal perspective, having gone through the '89 quake, is people have short memories. People tend to be in denial about what could happen," said Smithwick, who happened to be in the heavily damaged Marina district when the earthquake struck. "It has happened before so let's learn from history."

Larkin Street Youth Services also has detailed plans for each of its 15 different facilities, which includes nine housing sites, two shelters, one permanent housing program, and transitional living programs scattered in various San Francisco neighborhoods.

"We are also trying to build an overall plan agency-wide," said Ray Fort, the nonprofit's chief operating officer who also oversees its emergency preparedness efforts. "We are making sure we can be up and running and housing all our clients in the aftermath of a major event."

Larkin staff regularly participates in disaster drills, as do residents of its programs. The agency is also looking to duplicate its computer infrastructure so as not to lose important files.

While Fort himself has not lived through a major disaster, he said the agency's planning did kick in in 2009 when a fire at a PG&E facility cut off power to one of Larkin's Tenderloin shelters.

"We have some excess capacity at one of our sites to address this situation or if a building collapses," said Fort, though he added that, "We haven't identified space for all the youth if all of our buildings are impacted."

One local business that has been a leader on emergency preparedness in the private sector is Gap Inc. The international clothing retailer's waterfront San Francisco headquarters is equipped to become an emergency operations center, backup workplace facility, and potential shelter should a major earthquake strike the Bay Area region.

Overseeing the company's efforts is Michael Lazcano, global director of Gap's business continuity planning, who joined the company in 2007.

"As a department we are entrusted with seeing that all or any parts of Gap Inc. around the world are able to respond effectively to a disaster," said Lazcano. "We supply the tools and mechanisms to make that happen."

His team gained invaluable insights from the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear scare that hit the Pacific Rim country last year. Gap has a major presence in Japan, and Lazcano's department spent two and half months dealing with the aftermath.

Their focus is not just on seeing the company get back to business, he said, but also working to help the local community rebound.

"We are part of the larger community we serve," he said.

In California Gap has teamed with both local and state officials as well as nonprofits like the American Red Cross to plan for when a disaster strikes. When a gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, for example, the company offered to house displaced residents in its facility in the town.

"You start thinking about bad things before they happen and start creating plans to mitigate the impact of when bad things happen," said Lazcano, who also helps train Gap's employees on what to do during a disaster. "Within the walls of Gap Inc. we are constantly sharing information with our employees, globally as well as in San Francisco."

For more information on emergency planning, visit

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