Oakmont emergency systems – what worked and what didn’t
By Jackie Ryan, Jim Brewer and Marty Thompson
Almost 4,800 residents evacuated Oakmont early on Oct. 9, seeking safety while fires burned on three sides of the adult residence community.
The aftermath revealed lessons to be learned, as the fires overwhelmed Oakmont’s volunteer emergency systems. Large numbers of residents had not signed up for emergency notification, and many of those who did had no phone service because of a wind-driven power outage that preceded the fire. Many people learned of the emergency from neighbors.
The combination of a power outage and urgency to evacuate meant many left without important belongings, medications, and even cars.
In the end, only two Oakmont homes, adjacent to Trione-Annadel State Park, burned.
“This was 10 times worse than any earthquake,” said Sue Hattendorf, who leads Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE), a network of more than 230 neighborhood teams in Oakmont set up to respond to disasters. Hattendorf maintains active lists of Oakmont’s COPE volunteers, and as of Sept.1, 68 areas needed COPE leaders.
The Oakmont Emergency Preparedness Committee (OEPC) conducted a review of the emergency response, citing a “clearly problematic” notification system. “It is distressing that many residents are still unaware of the (reverse 911) system and/or have failed to sign up despite OEPC efforts,” said the report by OEPC head Pat Barclay. “For residents to help ensure their survival, they need to take personal responsibility for preparing for a disaster,” Barclay said.
Despite a highly successful evacuation overall, the report cited a handful of residents who stayed behind, jeopardizing themselves and first responders.
About 20 OEPC zone communications volunteers walked their Oakmont neighborhoods to alert residents to evacuate.
“Neighbors are your closest family in a disaster,” Hattendorf said in an interview. She urged Oakmonters to familiarize themselves with emergency preparedness. “Prepare a kit, know how to open your garage door if the power is out, and know what’s important in every room of your house.”
Oakmont Gardens evacuationAt the Oakmont Gardens assisted living facility, Executive Director Cathy Allen said 200 residents were evacuated in buses and personal vehicles. They were moved to the homes of families and friends or to a shelter at Elsie Allen High School. MKB Senior Living, owners of the Gardens, sent regular email updates to 250 residents’ families during the evacuation.
“We did everything we could to let people know what was going on,” said Allen. After the evacuation was lifted, Gardens staff and outside specialists spent three days cleaning the building. Residents returned Oct. 22 with a welcome home champagne celebration.
Join COPE & OEPC Elsewhere, communication was spotty at best. Information posted on social media was often redundant and in some cases inaccurate. One posting after the evacuation was lifted told residents not to return. The OVA’s own website was not offering updates, despite being operational.
Gloria Young, OVA board president, pointed to COPE as an emergency response vehicle that can identify those who need special assistance. “We should become familiar with our neighborhood and neighbors and we should be aware of who might need (special) assistance,” she said. “But I think COPE provides a structured way of doing that by organizing these groups of neighbors together and we have that program in place.” OEPC and COPE have encouraged residents to volunteer in their neighborhoods. To volunteer to be a COPE team leader call Hattendorf at 539-2543.
The OEPC report also urged recognition for those who volunteer for emergency-related events.