Is Imperial County prepared for the next disaster?

File photo.

Although Imperial County’s response readiness for natural disasters has been scrutinized for years, recent events such as the earthquake swarms near Brawley have brought additional attention to how well the County can mitigate casualties and property damage.

Imperial County Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas updated the Board of Supervisors February 14 on recent developments in the County’s disaster response ability.

According to Rouhotas, the widespread nature of a disaster often demands cooperation between various agencies, including those beyond the jurisdiction of the impacted county. As such, during a disaster, the affected area would implement the Incident Command System (ICS), a management system that provides a common organizational structure for five key areas: command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance and administration. The aim of ICS is to reduce redundancy and to better account for assets and spending during and following disasters.

“We need to be cost effective and avoid duplicating effort,” said Rouhotas. “This is done though ICS coordination.”

The need for specific disaster plans and management systems was recognized after the 1993 Oakland Hills fire which took 25 lives and cost an estimated $1.5 billion in economic loss. Inefficient coordination between agencies and a lack of emergency standards allowed the fire to continue longer, such as when out-of-county firefighters could not connect their hoses to non-standard fire hydrant outlets.

Rouhotas said Imperial County has focused on ensuring all local agencies are able to communicate during disasters, by creating redundant lines of communication and having law enforcement, fire, and other emergency services use the same types of radios.

Threats of disaster for Imperial County include flooding, such as the 2012 overflow of the East Highline Canal which flooded the east end of Calipatria. The recent crisis involved with Northern California’s Oroville Dam spillway failure has also prompted renewed concern of other at-risk infrastructure, and corresponding response plans.

“It looks like the biggest dilemma is the gridlock of people,” noted Supervisor Ray Castillo on the Oroville crisis. “Of course, we have Hoover Dam upstream from us, which is quite a ways off, but you never know.”

Earthquakes have also received substantial consideration. The swarms of quakes that occurred in the North End of the Valley in 2001, 2009, and 2016 have been numerous, although rarely higher than a 4.8 in magnitude. Yet, the 7.2 magnitude earthquake of April 4, 2010 was located 50 miles south of the Mexico-U.S. border and caused notable damage even in Imperial County. If a similar quake occurred within the County, the effects would substantially increase.

And yet, a notable concern is that even the smaller quakes in the Brawley Seismic Zone (BSZ) could trigger a larger quake along the San Andreas Fault (SAF). In an academic study published by the American Geophysical Union earlier this month, three leading Southern California seismologists, including Dr. Egill Hauksson, noted that given the slip rate of the southern portion of the SAF, a major earthquake (over a 7.0 in magnitude) in that area would occur on average every 180 years. According to the study, the last large earthquake in the region took place nearly 320 years ago, indicating another might be overdue.

If such a quake occurs, considerable damage could take place, not just near the southern SAF, but for much of Southern California, since many utilities services have infrastructure that crosses the fault, resulting in potentially thousands of casualties and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, according to the report. While many of the BSZ quakes have been relatively shallow, making them less likely to increase stress on the SAF, the report acknowledged the mapping of the SAF’s southern tip is largely incomplete, and recommended further study. Geothermal mining in the area was also suggested to have affected the seismic activity in the BSZ.

Rouhotas pointed out that following the earthquakes in 2010 and 2012, the County struggled for months with providing relocation services to those who lived in mobile home parks. It is in this recovery stage that the financial costs of a disaster begin to accumulate, he said.

“Recovery is probably the biggest impact you can have,” stressed Rouhotas. “The last thing you want to tell people month after month is that we’re still working on it.”

The ICS is also designed to document costs so accurate reimbursement from the state and federal government can be procured. If the 2010 April earthquake had been a Presidential Declaration, 75 percent of the costs would be covered by the federal government, 18.75 percent by the state, and 6.25 percent by the County, but only if the County had provided proper attestation. Imperial County likely would have been forced to cover more than 6.25 percent of $150 million ($9.38 million) in damages from the 2010 quake.