THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective – San Francisco

 
What is the greatest persistent challenge in your mission?
 
Probably our biggest persistent challenge is public preparedness. San Francisco is a little unique in that we tend to be a very transient city. People are here for a short amount of time and move on. I’ve heard different statistics indicate that the population essentially changes every 10-20 years, just because of natural churn in the area. So trying to motivate people, educate them, get them to make those behavioral change and become more prepared for emergencies across the board is critical. And trying to build community resilience is really at its very foundation dependent on neighbors knowing neighbors. Having a very transitional population makes that more difficult.
 
We’re actually doing a lot of innovative things beyond “build the kit, make the plan, get involved.” While that’s there, our bigger concern is how do we help people know their neighbors? How do we build stronger communities? That’s where we’re really focused, and it’s things as seemingly irrelevant to disaster preparedness such as urban gardening that actually really move the needle If we can get people together to take an empty lot and turn it into a shared garden, then we have neighbors who know each other and are solving problems together on a day-to-day basis. And really from a disaster standpoint, that’s what you want is people who can come together and solve problems. We use that as a platform to introduce questions like, “What’s resiliency?’” and “What’s ‘prepared?’” and to get people to store food and water and take precautions to mitigate their risks—to secure their house so that shelves aren’t falling on them and such. It gives us an entrée and a platform to work from, because really community resilience comes down to how strong the community is from a people perspective—people knowing each other and taking care of neighbors.
 
Does the city engage the private sector in its mission? If so are those relationships formalized?
 
The last time I checked we’re the only local or UASI jurisdiction that actually employs a full-time person to work with the private sector. In most other areas it’s an ancillary duty assigned to a couple different people. But we actually have a planner whose primary job is to go out and work with the private sector. And then beyond that we also work with the various other city entities that are working with the private sector. So for example, in our EOC we’ve created a branch where we can bring in schools and universities, we also bring in representatives from the private sector to have them at the table with us when we manage events.
 
During H1N1 last year we put together a conference call with the private sector so they had direct access to decision makers actually managing that event, and they were able to ask questions and receive guidance. On that conference call we had something like 12,000 people—I was glad I found that out after the call was over. And we did that call through a public-private partnership because we didn’t have that kind of line capacity, but one of the bigger businesses in town said, “Oh, we do this all the time, we’ll set it up.” So they actually set it up using their conference bridge service, so it worked out just perfectly.
 
We send out situation reports and make sure that the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Bay Area Human Resource Management Association is on them, and that private sector partners that aren’t members of those organizations can sign up for them. They’re getting the same information that other city departments are getting and they’re getting it as soon as we have it so that they can make decisions about how to run their businesses.
 
One of the big things that our private sector person has worked on is shelter-in-place issues for the city’s financial district. San Francisco’s probably not going to need to evacuate entirely. We have an evacuation plan but it’s very typical—reverse the roads and leave—because we feel the likelihood is pretty slim. But the financial district surges with a couple hundred thousand people every day, so we really focus on working with the business community there. A realistic scenario is that after an earthquake bridges will be shut down at least for inspection. Running ferries 24 hours a day at capacity—assuming none of the docks that they need are damaged—it would still take three or four days to get everybody out of the financial district. So we’ve really been doing a lot of outreach working with people and coming up with how we’re going to support the financial district to stay put and how we’re going to get people home.
 
On the small-business front, one of our big initiatives we’re working on involves emergency provisions. Where do you store a few million MREs? Not to mention where do you get the money to buy and replace them every five years or so? We got to looking around and realized that San Francisco has a wealth of restaurants and small stores, all of which have things that people in their neighborhoods need. So as we move forward one of our big initiatives now is to develop memorandums of understanding with these small businesses so that after an emergency is declared, they can make those supplies available to their community and then we can actually reimburse them and seek reimbursement ourselves from the federal government under the Stafford Act. We would eliminate the need for out-of-store MREs, which nobody wants to eat anyway, and we’ve made it possible to get provisions to the public much more quickly. We’ve also eliminated hopefully a tremendous amount of waste, and we’ve put in place a mechanism where we can kick-start the economic recovery in the small business sector. Anyone who knows anything about recovery recognizes that you’ve got to kick-start the economy, you’ve got to get small businesses up and running, get people back to work, and get kids back in school. If you can do those things you can recover much faster and get your city back. If you look at the rate of people returning to New Orleans, it’s just abysmal. So we’re looking at ways that we can take advantage of what we already have, support our merchants, and solve a myriad of problems.
 
What are the office’s major goals going forward?
 
We’re really starting to dig into long-term recovery. What are the changes we need to make now to put mechanisms in place to speed that along? That comes down to looking at governance changes and the prospect of not doing business normally, because otherwise you will not get a city rebuilt in any less than a couple of decades. What do we need to do now so we can make those changes if necessary? How do you fund it? So long-term recovery is probably one of our biggest goals going forward. The other is building community resilience, which goes hand-in-hand with recovery. We’ve got the response thing down—I don’t want to say it’s perfect because it never will be, but we’ve got it well in hand to where we can actually focus on resilience and recovery as priorities.
 

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