In Bel Air, the luxury of disaster readiness

Bel Air Operations Manager Rick Cole points out some of the $50,000-worth of supplies the community has gathered to protect its residents in the event of a disaster.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Tucked beneath green tennis courts in a hidden corner of Bel Air Crest, a 10-by-20 shed holds enough emergency equipment to stock a small hardware store — a 13,000-watt tri-fuel generator, a satellite phone and neatly organized boxes of medical supplies.

And then there’s the eight portable toilets with pop-up privacy tents.

“You can’t have 1,500 people not able to go to the bathroom,” said Marsha Hierbaum, president of the Bel Air Crest Homeowners Assn.

The shed represents one piece of a years-long effort to ensure all residents of this gated community are ready when the “Big One” hits. In a city populated by people expecting — but many ill-prepared to handle — a major earthquake, it is the affluent and organized hillside neighborhoods that have taken emergency preparedness to the extreme. A 6.0-magnitude earthquake that rumbled through Napa last month underscored for some how important their effort is.


Local residents have long understood that living on winding, narrow roads means they could be on their own when disaster strikes. So they have taken safety into their own hands.

Although Bel Air Crest has fewer than 300 homes, the homeowners association has spent about $50,000 on emergency supplies and equipment over the last three years, including the purchase of a 2,000-gallon water truck. A core group of about a dozen nearby Bel Air Ridge residents has met monthly for more than 20 years to discuss emergency response. And leaders in Beverly Glen recently installed a repeater in a resident’s backyard to help ensure their hand-held radio system will work up and down the neighborhood’s canyons.

First responders “won’t get to us,” Bel Air Crest Operations Manager Rick Cole said. “My board of directors was wise enough to set aside some money each year, and we slowly built up this inventory of supplies so we would be self-reliant.”

The Los Angeles Fire Department’s Community Emergency Response Team program advises locals to store enough food and water to last at least three days after a disaster. Depending on the scale and location of the damage, fire officials say, the wait for help could be even longer.

“We’re going to try just as hard to get to Bel Air as we would any neighborhood,” said Peter Sanders, an LAFD spokesman. But “the topography all across the Santa Monica Mountains … sometimes provides challenges. Angelenos need to be prepared … to be self-sustainable in the event of any disaster that has a wide impact.”

Over the last decade, CERT training classes have become so popular that groups must sometimes wait three months or longer to get in, said veteran firefighter Jarvis “Bubba” Willis, who teaches them. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people take the training each year.


Only 6% of Angelenos report being prepared for the major quake they expect will occur in their lifetime, said Jarrett Barrios, chief executive of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region.

A report recently released by Barrios’ organization concluded “some communities are more likely to weather the aftermath of a major incident better than others, in large part because of socioeconomic and demographic factors.” The report identified 10 communities likely to have the greatest “social vulnerability” in the event of a disaster; low-income communities in Central and South L.A filled the list.

“Anybody can sit in a classroom, but not everyone can afford to take the steps to build their kits or have the time to participate in map-your-neighborhood projects,” Barrios said. “The communities that have less leisure time are going to be comparatively less resilient because of it.

“The deep disparity really does raise questions about the public commitment … to vulnerable communities that do not have everything,” he said.

Bel Air Crest, neighborhood leaders acknowledge, does basically have it all. Fire officials say they are not aware of any area that has poured more resources into disaster preparedness.

Three years ago, a fire charred a nearby hillside and the long-discussed emergency preparedness committee was born. The HOA initially set aside about $15,000 to begin buying supplies, then kept adding items, including air mattresses, a rough-terrain wheelchair and a power winch.

“We have nothing left to purchase,” said Harris Sperling, the committee chairman.

It was Sperling’s job to create what would become a 42-page disaster plan. And since the HOA already had an emergency broadcast system and a residential database, it was relatively easy to spread the word and recruit help as organizers pieced the plan together.

Soon Sperling and Cole had assembled a team of about 50 volunteers assigned to be block captains, search-and-rescue members or doctors on the medical triage team. They developed a color-coded incident map that lays out each block captain’s territory. It also marks the “command center” at the HOA’s clubhouse and the “medical treatment area” behind it.

One tennis court is designated to house pets. Another is for triage. And one side of a particular court, “God forbid … would be for a morgue,” Cole said.

“We have enough medical supplies to treat about 500 people with pretty serious injuries,” he said, standing just steps from an ATV recently purchased by the HOA. “But there’s a limit to funds. We can’t create a hospital up here.”

“Although,” Sperling cut in, “almost....”
Twitter: @MattStevensLAT