Editorial: Mixed grades for disaster readiness

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently toured the Washington, D.C., high-tech emergency command center and gave mixed grades to The City’s own preparedness in comparison.

With the solid financial backing of federal Homeland Security dollars, officials in the nation’s capital have been highly active in preparing scenarios for coping with the possibility of biological or bomb attacks by terrorists. They are arranging for Washington’s plethora of public buildings, such as the Smithsonian Institution, to shelter tourists after an attack and organizing downtown hotels as shelters and first-aid facilities.

Where terrorist attacks are the primary concern in Washington, San Francisco and the Bay Area must also worry about living atop a minefield of earthquake faults every day, as well as considering the real possibility that terrorists, particularly those based in Pacific nations, might attempt to destroy landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica Building.

Yet the difficulties of preparing for earthquakes and terrorism are quite similar. Both disasters are most likely to happen without warning and could force residents to survive primarily on their own resources for the first three days.

Washington has distributed thousands of basic emergency kits with water containers, military-type food rations and flashlights. San Francisco simply has a Web site — www.72hours.org — offering tips on surviving three days without electricity, water or gas.

However, Washington officials lauded San Francisco’s citywide network of 65 emergency sirens, which are also capable of broadcasting emergency news announcements. Earthquake-prone San Francisco also has almost four times as many trained emergency responders as Washington, with 15,000.

Mayor Newsom was right to recognize that Washington’s preparedness is ahead of San Francisco’s in some important ways. With the certainty that a major earthquake could devastate the Bay Area on any given day, it would be foolhardy for the region not to organize as efficiently as possible to survive a disaster.

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