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EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : Agencies Acted Fast, Still Overwhelmed : Aftermath: Officials say disaster response was largest in U.S. history, yet was no match for the number of victims. Innovations helped cope with the crush.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barely 48 hours after the Northridge earthquake ripped through Los Angeles, a task force of local, state and federal officials convened a hurried meeting to address a critical question.

Thousands of people had taken to sleeping in parks and the task force had to decide whether to pitch tents to shelter the frightened masses.

Local officials had voiced strong objections to erecting tent cities of the kind that sprang up near Miami in 1989 after Hurricane Andrew. But there were forecasts of rain and cold, and no one was eager to see earthquake victims suffer further by being drenched.

Under pressure from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state, local officials relented, and four days after the magnitude 6.6 quake, National Guard units began raising the tents in the hardest-hit areas.

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It was one of hundreds of decisions with wide-ranging impact that would be made in the days following the Jan. 17 quake. Led by FEMA, which coordinates government response to disaster and administers emergency aid, authorities have mounted what they say is the largest urban disaster relief effort in U.S. history.

The response has been at times both chaotic and inspired, with FEMA under intense pressure to avoid the delays and mistakes that provoked so much criticism after Hurricane Andrew, the Loma Prieta quake and the Los Angeles riots.

The problems presented by the earthquake are especially daunting because of Los Angeles’ urban nature and the extent of damage to the region’s roads, schools and utility lines.

“That is one reason why there was so much damage and devastation,” said FEMA Director James Lee Witt. “But you’ve got one of the most incredible federal response teams here that you have ever seen.”

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Still, there have also been missteps. Authorities concede that in the rush to open disaster application centers--"to show we were being responsive,” said one official--they exceeded their capacity to staff them and likely increased the frustration level of victims.

Also, the decision by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros to dispense rental assistance vouchers at the FEMA centers may have increased the volume of traffic incalculably, officials now speculate. FEMA officials concede that many victims were confused about what to expect at the assistance centers and were disappointed to learn that immediate cash assistance would not be forthcoming.

Officials were also caught by surprise when tens of thousands of people rushed to apply for food stamps, a federal welfare program that authorities decided to make available to earthquake victims. At times, authorities had to call in police to subdue unruly crowds, and by week’s end officials were forced to delay issuance of food stamps to crack down on fraud.

But if there have been snags, the relief effort has also generated innovative thinking, a greater willingness to cut red tape and an emphasis on getting information to the public.

Gov. Pete Wilson released state workers from their duties to act as emergency volunteers. So far, 500 have signed up and will continue to receive state pay.

The response has included an unprecedented display of communications technology to get vital information to victims and the media, including FEMA’s Recovery Channel, televised from FEMA’s Pasadena field office.

And the call for help has produced people such as Angela Tabar Svennefiord, 32, a trilingual Angeleno just returned from Sweden, who arrived at the FEMA office with a resume hoping to help somewhere. Ninety minutes later she took the oath of office as a FEMA reservist--proof, said a glowing official, that FEMA is ready to cut through red tape.

Interviews with state and federal officials and a review of FEMA’s daily internal news summaries provide a look at how the emergency response unfolded in the hours and days after the quake.

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Within 15 minutes of the 4:31 a.m. quake, FEMA’s regional office in San Francisco and Richard Andrews, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, were on the phone alerting Witt that this was not your garden-variety Southern California earthquake.

By midday on the East Coast, after several conversations with President Clinton, it was decided that Witt, Cisneros and Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena would leave immediately for California to assess the situation.

Back in California, meanwhile, Andrews, with little information about the extent of damage, had made a number of critical decisions, among them to begin assembling California’s urban search-and-rescue units and to ask FEMA to make ready to provide tents and water. Both would be needed as thousands of quake victims camped out in parks and thousands more were faced with undrinkable water.

In Denton, Tex., it was a little after 7 a.m. when Glen Garcelon turned on CNN and learned of the quake. No damage or casualty estimates were available, but Garcelon, in charge of FEMA’s tele-registration phone bank, realized that there was a potential calamity in the making and called his 136 staffers to work.

By the time the rest of the nation was learning of Southern California’s latest catastrophe, Art Botterell, a communications specialist with the state Office of Emergency Services, had been at work for hours on his home computer in Davis, near Sacramento, cranking out information over the state’s emergency news wire service.

In those early hours, Los Angeles city and county officials, the Red Cross, FEMA and others would utilize the service to relay to the public essential information about what to do. It would be the beginning of the most massive display of communications technology ever employed in a disaster response.

Among the major decisions made during the first days of the emergency were when and where to open the disaster application centers, which serve as focal points for officials to divine the needs of the community and for victims seeking aid. Officials were eager to open the centers quickly to “demonstrate that we were being responsive,” Andrews said.

“There was the difficulty of balancing that desire against the limitations of what we knew we could put in place in two days,” he said.

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Three days after the temblor, 11 centers opened in quake-ravaged areas. Officials were overwhelmed as thousands upon thousands of quake victims formed lines and the full extent of the suffering began to dawn.

For the first time during the disaster, FEMA became the target of criticism as many victims voiced frustration at the slow pace in the centers and confusion about what to expect.

“It was while looking at the lines on that first day that we fully began to realize the dimensions of what we were dealing with,” Andrews said.

“The lines were unbelievable and overwhelmed all of us,” Witt said. “We came back and set out very quickly to open up new centers and hire new staff.”

By Jan. 21, a 12th center had opened in Van Nuys and another was being readied in South-Central Los Angeles, as dozens more volunteers were recruited. Officials say that up to 150 people each day were volunteering for duties ranging from interpreter to courier. Officials had also decided to eliminate questions on the application forms that were slowing down the process.

That first Friday would also prove to be the day of reckoning for Garcelon back in Denton, as quake victims began to heed pleas to apply for aid by phone. Through the week, officials had steadily increased the number of phone lines as the stream of calls turned to a deluge. That Friday, though, 205,000 quake victims jammed phone lines. At the peak of the frenzy, officials were recording 15,000 calls per hour.

During the weekend, Garcelon hired hundreds of phone recruits around the country to staff more phone lines, including about 100 that were added at FEMA’s Washington headquarters. The new hires were given quick orientation lessons covering disaster assistance programs. Still, complaints began to filter back from some earthquake victims of ill-informed operators dispensing misleading information.

That first Friday would also see the first tents being erected to shelter thousands of homeless quake victims. The decision had not been easily arrived at. The tent cities thrown up in South Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew stood for months, becoming a locus for crime and breeding unsanitary conditions. Officials here devised a strategy of emphasizing that the tents would be temporary and sent out teams of social workers, health and mental health officials to urge occupants back to their homes.

“We decided to be very proactive in our outreach, to find out where people lived, get their homes inspected and get them into the application process,” Andrews said. By Jan. 23, the number of those camped out in parks and tent cities had begun to dwindle.

Also by that Sunday, FEMA’s relatively newfound priority of “getting the word out” was in full swing.

“Information is as important to people as food, water and shelter,” said FEMA spokesman Mike Allen, who with 55 staffers is responsible for disseminating information to the public.

The blitz would include thousands of reports, memos, summaries, advisories and updates faxed to dozens of media outlets, government and business offices and establishment of the Recovery Channel, which was first tried during last year’s Midwest floods but is getting its biggest tryout here. The channel’s first broadcast on Jan. 23 featured a FEMA official explaining tele-registration and disaster aid application procedures.

The feeds are being made available to television and radio stations and can be picked up on two networks by anyone who owns a satellite dish. Television station KLCS, Channel 58, has been running the broadcasts nightly and FEMA has placed broadcast monitors in disaster application centers.

FEMA would also decide to use another idea first tested during the Midwest floods, a weekly newsletter, Recovery Times, which was scheduled to begin publication by the end of the second week of the disaster. This time, FEMA officials will set up their own mini-printing plant to handle the immense flow of information and are looking for more office space in Pasadena.

Last week, officials began to voice guarded optimism that the emergency response phase of the operation was ending and that they would soon be able to devote full time to recovery efforts.

Clinton has asked Congress for $6.6 billion to finance relief efforts, and officials said they have have set about prioritizing the work.

“Now we have to begin to monitor people who have gone through the process to see that money is being disbursed quickly,” Andrews said. “But the issues are going to continue to be complicated. I’ve seen no sign that demand has begun to taper off . . . and until that happens we are in the general posture of increasing activities rather than winding down.”


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