A report released June 21 by the Ventura County Grand Jury shows that the county is not adequately prepared for flooding, dam breaks, or tsunamis.
The grand jury found that the warning sirens in potential flood areas in the county have not been properly maintained. Elsewhere, evacuation maps are not accessible to residents who live in areas prone to flooding, below dams, or at risk from tsunami inundation, and street signs directing evacuation have not been posted in those areas.
“While nothing can be done to prevent most disasters, evacuation plans can be developed and publicized so that when such an event occurs or a warning is issued, people will know where to go for reasonable safety,” the report said.
Laura Hernandez, who heads the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Office of Emergency Services (OES), said her office still needs to review the grand jury report and will not be ready for a comment until it has done so. The OES operates a central emergency response center for the county.
One area of concern is the path water might take should the Casitas Dam fail. A 1993 map issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation showed that a dam break could flood Highway 33, the Ventura River, and the Ventura Ave. area in the city of Ventura. In 1999, the bureau began retrofitting the dam to withstand a 7.0 earthquake.
But should anything cause the dam to fail, the community might still be in danger. As recently as May, the report said, “several,” of 11 fixed-point sirens installed by the bureau and operated by the Casitas Municipal Water District are in need of repair.
Although some repairs have taken place, money has not been budgeted for ongoing maintenance. The OES estimates repairs would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. Ongoing maintenance would be about $10,000 to $15,000.
The OES has recommended that the Ventura County Disaster Council decommission the sirens, but no decision has been made. The grand jury has urged the OES and the council to determine whether or not to keep the system.
Meanwhile, the report said, Ventura County is at risk from so-called “tele-tsunamis” that cross the ocean as well as tsunamis that develop inside the Santa Barbara Channel or elsewhere near the coast. Although the county OES makes recommendations to local emergency managers for tsunami planning, each local authority must form its own evacuation plan. A potential evacuation plan has been posted on the OES Web site at www.vcsd.org/oes/.
The California Department of Transportation has also notified local authorities to install signs identifying tsunami hazard zones and evacuation routes, but none have been posted in the County to date.
The grand jury’s report also detailed other problems, such as the lack of a plan to get bus operators to help in an evacuation, the need for public education campaigns and strategies to mitigate the traffic gridlock that could come with an evacuation, and a lack of coordination between the OES and individual municipalities.
“A lack of adequate planning could potentially create panic and gridlock, severely hampering the evacuation process,” the report said. “Experience suggests that the county may need to take a more aggressive approach to educating at-risk communities about the potential dangers they face and what they should do in the event of an alert.”