Saturday, September 10, 2011

San Clemente's Best Case Scenario Disaster

No Earthquake - No Tsunami - Know Problem 

At approximately 3:30 p.m. on September 8, 2011 south Orange County experienced an electrical outage, which extended south to Baja, Mexico, and east to Yuma, Arizona.  This was the largest power outage in Southern California history, according to @SDG&E.  San Clemente, Dana Point, and San Juan Capistrano, the three centers of population in the southern-most end of the county, all suffered a complete loss of electrical power.  As a result, traffic lights either ceased to function, or went to flashing red.  ATMs, cash registers, street lights, gas pumps, all stopped working.  Businesses, restaurants, and schools closed and sent their employees home early.  San Diego’s Lindbergh field halted all incoming traffic, and Amtrak stopped running its trains.

All of these factors led to extremely heavy traffic on both surface roads and the Interstate 5 freeway; intersections became gridlocked at the four-way flashing red lights, and freeway off-ramps backed onto the freeway itself, causing jams, wrecks, and fender-benders.  A customer at a Radio Shack in Dana Point said it took her 2.5 hours to drive the 7 miles from La Pata Avenue through the Ortega Highway interchange with Interstate 5.  Normally, this would be a 10-minute drive.  Due to the high heat, people left their engines running while stuck in traffic, and many people ended up abandoning their cars as they ran out of gas.  At 7 p.m. it took me 30 minutes to drive from Golden Lantern and the PCH in Dana Point to my home in north San Clemente, just off the freeway, a drive of usually 7 minutes.

Additionally, cellular phone reception ceased in some areas, and was severely impacted in other areas, leading to failures in service, and hampered communications between community members and loved ones.

All of this occurred under relatively calm circumstances, fair conditions, and a somewhat circumspect, tolerant attitude on the part of most people who understood, via the radio, that there was no real emergency, and that everything possible was being done.  And yet, under these “ideal” circumstances, no one could get anywhere in an efficient manner.

The optimum emergency we experienced on September 8 was a telling dress rehearsal for what might happen in a real emergency, and the results are disheartening and concerning.  In a situation where urgency and panic are high, such as a nuclear accident at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or a severe earthquake, or a military incident, the resulting chaos, confusion, and gridlock are likely to be far worse.  Not only that, but in the event of an accident at San Onofre, the public would simply sit in traffic under radiation, guaranteeing fatal and/or longterm negative health consequences.

It’s my opinion that there are no simple fixes for evacuating large numbers of people from this area.   The main traffic problem was mostly on the surface streets, not the freeway, so the argument for the efficacy of the extension of the toll road completely loses ground.

I believe that educating the public about emergency preparedness needs to be re-vamped, re-started, and widespread.  People need to know what options they have for staying in place, and how to handle the threat of radiation.  The City of San Clemente could and should work with the Red Cross and local hospitals and public agencies (fire and sheriffs’ departments) to develop a new, more effective, and more realistic disaster plan for its community members and families.

Beth Anne Boardman, R.N., M.A.,
San Clemente resident, and mother of two.

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