Officials scramble to stay ahead of threats

A year after Hurricane Katrina burst the levees in New Orleans and drowned much of the Gulf Coast, San Mateo County officials say residents here would be much better off in the event of a major natural catastrophe.

Since Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has trained 75 Peninsula personnel, including government employees, as emergency coordinators, according to officials. Sheltering equipment for thousands and a second public notification system have been purchased, and portable trailers to house large numbers of dead are already in use.

Perhaps most importantly — because much of San Francisco’s weekday population of more than

1 million could have to evacuate south in the event of, say, an earthquake — cooperation with The City is at an all-time high, said San Mateo County Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Lt. John Quinlan.

“Our county and the state of California are monumentally better prepared than the state of Louisiana,” said Frank Fraone, a division chief in the Menlo Park Fire District and a member of the federal urban search-and-rescue team based at that department.

Fraone helped coordinate supply distribution in New Orleans after Katrina, and members of his team also responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and to 10 major hurricanes.

Another advantage the county has over New Orleans is that mutual aid agreements allow dispatchers to move fire and law enforcement resources throughout the county within minutes, putting the county near the top nationwide for disaster preparedness, Fraone said.

“I think we’re pretty well prepared for a natural disaster, depending on its size,” said Ted Glasgow, foreman of the county’s Civil Grand Jury, which just completed a review of disaster preparedness.

Despite the benefits of new equipment that purifies thousands of gallons of water an hour, a locally based search-and-rescue squad composed of about 240 area firefighters and a model command structure now being implemented on a national level, deficiencies are evident, officials said.

Due to changes in funding models, the county expects to receive about $1 million in 2006 from the Department of Homeland Security for multi-hazard equipment and training, just a fraction of the $4.5 million it received just two years ago for terrorism alone, Quinlan said.

Emergency plans for several county departments — including Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Libraries and municipal airports in San Carlos and Half Moon Bay — also don’t meet state and federal standards, making them potentially ineligible for grants, according to Glasgow.

Each of the departments is updating its plan to meet state and federal standards, a process expected to take several months, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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