In the midst of evacuations earlier this month in Montecito, Calif., Laura Bartels’s retreat group maintained calm in the literal storm. That’s because Bartels, executive director of the Mindful Life Program and who was leading the California retreat, had taken several precautions in the event that their plans would have to change.
“There were red-flag warnings — they’d had 100-degree days and high winds,” Bartels said of La Casa de Maria, where about 100 people were attending a meditation retreat she had helped organize. “I stay very alert to things like that and feel very responsible for the group we’d assembled.”
Bartels created a “buddy system” for the group specifically in case of an evacuation and a group text message with everyone’s contact information. “I did a test of that, so if we needed to evacuate, I would text everyone and we would head out,” she said. Perhaps most importantly, Bartels signed up for the Santa Barbara emergency alert system so she would know immediately if an evacuation notice had been sent.
“I am just so in favor of that system to help local residents be alerted,” she said, noting that even when just visiting, for that time, you’re local. “Even when you’re travelling in an area where there might be some natural disaster risk, signing up [for the alert system] for the area you’re staying in might be useful. I don’t think I normally would have thought of that, but given that I was responsible for this group, I thought that was good stuff.”
As it turned out, Bartels’s instincts were also good. She had been concerned because of the fires in the area. While La Casa de Maria had suffered some damage, the property was newly cleaned and open for the retreat when the group arrived on Jan. 7 — just two days before the devastating floods and mudslide that led to 21 casualties. “We weren’t there for 24 hours before we were evacuated,” Bartels said, adding that La Casa de Maria was in a mandatory evacuation zone. “For us, it was orderly; it was calm; it was planned. It wasn’t panic, but I think that’s the value of these systems.” Because she had signed up for the alert system, Bartels began receiving warnings about potential flash floods as early as Sunday evening, when her group first arrived.
According to several articles in the Los Angeles Times, the National Weather Service sent a flash flood warning at 2:30 a.m.
that Tuesday — but many intended recipients received nothing. Sixteen minutes later, the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management sent its own warning — but only to people like Bartels who had signed up for the alert system. It wasn’t until 3:50 a.m. that all cell phones within signal received an alert, and by that point, it was too late for many. At least six of those who died lived in voluntary evacuation zones.
Karen Glenn and Tom Passavant, who split their year living between Honolulu and Carbondale, were in their 27th-floor apartment when they received the now-famously false missile alert on their cell phones.
“At first, we just didn’t’ believe it,” Glenn said, mostly because from their apartment, the married couple have a view of the airport and ocean and didn’t see any activity. “The surfers were still surfing. The famous air raid sirens — the ones they’ve been testing every month — they did not go off. Then we looked out on the airport, and the jets were not scrambling. Nothing was happening over there — nothing at all.”
Though they were suspicious, they also decided, essentially, better safe than sorry. “We thought we should act like it was real, because maybe it was,” Glenn said. Out in the halls, they could hear their neighbors heading to the elevators, all en route to the third floor, where there were no windows.
Perhaps they would join on the third floor, they initially thought as they packed backpacks with snacks and medications. Then again, maybe not — after all, if they were cramped on the third floor with the rest of the building residents, it would be difficult to get back to their apartment to access food and water.
“Meanwhile, I kept checking the internet,” Glenn said. “ A local newspaper site was down, and we couldn’t find anything about it one way or the other. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to check Twitter,” she said, adding that people were reporting that the alarm was a mistake there first.
Seventeen minutes later, she recalled, an English newspaper reported the false alarm. “About a minute later, we saw that ABC had posted it. And then 20 minutes later, the state of Hawaii managed to send a message on the cell phone saying, ‘never mind,’” she said.
In addition to their apartment view to the outside world, Glenn and Passavant were able to remain relatively calm because they have thought about emergency preparedness. “We do in fact have emergency supplies in terms of water and canned food and stuff like that in the apartment, which is more for the event of a tsunami or a hurricane,” Glenn said.
Receiving alerts/calling for help
There is no risk of Garfield County residents receiving a false alert mirroring what happened in Hawaii largely because the local system is much more than a one-button operation, Carl Stephens, executive director of the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority, said in an email.
“We do not have pre-canned messages or ‘just push a single button’ type of system to send out messages,” he said. “To send a message, the dispatcher must log into the system, select who (draw on a map or select a dataset) they are sending it to and then type the message.”
Requiring customized messages to customized locales reduces the risk of false alerts or mistakes, he said. In the event of a wildfire, for instance, very specific areas would be targeted for alerts so as not to cause confusion or overload systems, Stephens explained.
“Our system does require citizens to sign up to receive alerts on cell phones,” he continued, adding that landline and Comcast Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) customers are added automatically. “We do encourage people to sign up to receive alerts on our website at www.garco911.org.”
In 2017, Garfield County Communications received 103,177 calls, including to non-emergency numbers. Of those, 22,794 were to 911 — and 86 percent of those were made on cell phones. That’s relevant because cell phone location data are not as accurate as those of landline connections; in fact, cell phone location requirements are within 50 and 300 meters.
“Currently, 40 percent of 911 calls that are received should provide a useable location,” Stephens said. “The lack of location of callers is very frustrating.”
When calling or texting 911, lead with your location, always.
Preparing your ‘go-bag’
If you had to leave your home on short notice, would you be ready, or would you have only the clothes on your back? Here are the basic essentials you should have packed and ready, should you need it, according to Ready.gov:
- Water – one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
- Food – at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- First aid kit
- Extra batteries
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Manual can opener for food
- Local maps
- Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery