Column: Earthquakes, meet North Korean nukes: California’s growing portfolio of disaster preparedness


It’s been 30-some years since those aging air raid sirens whined their last-Friday-of-the-month test decibels across Los Angeles. The duck-and-cover kids who drilled to civil defense alarms and alerts now have grandchildren. The nuclear catastrophe that Cold War Americans prepped for and dreaded moved into the wings as terrorist threats took center stage. Now there are intercontinental ballistic missile tests out of North Korea, with swaggering threats about sending nuclear warheads to the western United States.

For the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, it’s one more matter to monitor and make ready for. Mark Ghilarducci is an old hand at disasters and emergency prep; he’s seen just about everything his native state can throw at its residents, and this one -- well, join the list.

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Your portfolio includes fires, floods, earthquakes and counterterrorism. Now, with the North Korean threat, have nuclear possibilities risen any higher in your portfolio?

I don’t think I would characterize it as rising any higher. Obviously the threat of anything radiological or nuclear is in our regular portfolio, mostly from the context of counterterrorism and/or some sort of technological accident. Probably the new twist is the media coverage of what North Korea is doing and the report that they could have a missile that could reach the West Coast.

What we’ve done associated with that has been really to engage a little bit more intensively with our counterparts at the federal level, with Department of Defense, and our National Guard, about what actually does that mean -- to try to quantify the level of the threat and the probability of something like this happening.

When you think back to the 1950s and ‘60s and the Cold War, that was a much more extensive national campaign that included things like shelters and different kinds of training. We’re not at that point, and I don’t necessarily perceive that we’ll get there -- at least not in any of the intelligence information that I’ve seen.

But I think it is something that we need to talk about. In my world, I have to think about unfortunately worst-case scenarios, and I spend a lot of time looking at what are the impacts of something like that should it occur.

We in California actually really are steps ahead of the rest of the country. We have, first of all, a statewide standardized emergency management system. All the local, state, federal entities collaborate and coordinate effectively within that system. That includes a very robust coordinated planning effort which is what we call all-risk.

So whether it’s the consequences of an earthquake, fire, flood or some terrorist action, the way we respond to these events is based around that system. But what’s changed now is, you take that and then you lay over it the increase in population, the kind of cascading impacts that are going to be different from what occurred in the ‘60s, what our defense systems look like now, how do our warning systems work today versus back then.

The dirty bomb has emerged as a terrorist threat over the last dozen or so years. Is there material, preparation, ideas about a dirty bomb that help you in your planning for the possibility of an actual nuclear attack?

When I look at the probability scale of things that occur, a dirty bomb is on a higher level of probability than us getting hit by an ICBM. But even on that hierarchy of things, I would be more worried about planning for the next earthquake than I would be worried about even a dirty bomb in our communities.

By the same token, it sounds as if a big earthquake would create some of the same problems; is there an overlap in your scenarios and preparation?

There are some differences with regards to the blast impacts and the radiological fallout of a missile strike versus a major earthquake. But a major earthquake is going to have massive infrastructure damage. You’re going to have fires. You could actually have some chemical or radiological releases, depending upon where it’s hitting, although most of our radiological things like nuclear power plants and other places are pretty secure, pretty hardened.

Nobody’s going out and buying bomb shelters and putting them in the back yard that I know of.

When you look at the Fukushima plant in Japan, which was a hardened facility -- of course they got hit by a tsunami [but] they did not think about gaps, actually the gaps hurt them. So even that event has allowed us to go back and look at all of our plans.

And we have catastrophic plans for the Los Angeles basin, for the San Francisco Bay area, for way up north, in the Cascadia region, and then in the Central Valley. These plans are worst-case scenario plans, in which talk about everything from the total number of potential casualties to what it’s going to take in resources to be able to respond. And in a case like a nuclear strike, one of the first things we’re going to want to look at, besides the firefighting and rescue, is continuity of government, that we can keep our government running and operational for the overall public safety.

Ventura County’s put together a 252-page response plan. Is this premature? Is it overreacting? Or is it something that could end up serving as guidelines for other counties?

I wouldn’t call any type of planning for a potential threat an overreaction or premature. I think that communities are best served by thinking about various sorts of events that could happen, and putting plans in place.

On the hierarchy of threats, the kind of threats that Ventura County could see, they have made a decision that that’s maybe a gap that didn’t exist and they wanted to put a plan in place. Other counties within the state, it would not be something that I would say, Hey, don’t do that. I think that all communities should be looking at the all-risk plan. And a nuclear radiological event falls within that all-risk framework.

Have you talked with your counterparts in Hawaii, which is in much closer range of North Korean missiles?

I did recently. Hawaii -- Oahu particularly -- is predominantly a heavy military presence. That increases the potential for being a target. Any time you have a large U.S. military presence, it’s always a challenge.

I think the same thing maybe of San Diego and the whole coast from Ventura down, Point Hueneme down. And Hawaii was also the subject of the attack at Pearl Harbor, and that still resonates with them. Their entire government still orbits around the civil defense concept, where they’ve been since post-World War II. And that’s part of their culture.

What communication have you have had with the federal government about the level of risk?

As the director of emergency services, the public safety director for California and the homeland security adviser for the governor, I have to be engaged with my federal counterparts. And I have a very, very close relationship with the adjutant general of the National Guard here in California, Gen. [David] Baldwin; the general and I meet regularly.

We’ve met with the governor and briefed him pretty regularly on the updates of these things. The governor has been engaged on this topic for some time.

And is old enough to remember the original nuclear risks.

And he reminds me now about things in the past! Which is good, because he’s thinking way ahead. With the Department of Defense, I talk to Northcom, our [U.S.] Northern Command], and there’s NORAD of course.

Because they’ve lived with it so long, people in California tend to be pretty casual about preparing for a big quake, which is an absolute risk, but is your office getting calls -- curious or panicky calls -- from the public, about something which at this point might be a much smaller risk: a nuclear attack from North Korea?

We haven’t received any panicky calls or any concerned calls yet. Probably the greatest number of calls, quite frankly, have been from the news media asking if other people are calling.

Sorry about that.

No, it’s good to think about and talk about. But maybe most Californians hear something like that on the news, and see that report that a trajectory of a missile could reach Chicago, and they think, Wow, that’s something to think about. But nobody’s going out and buying bomb shelters and putting them in the back yard that I know of.

We are obviously not privy to all of the classified negotiations, but the bottom line is that we would take the cue closer to what the federal government would be doing in this particular case and advising us if they see that the situation has broken down. But if [North Korea] did launch it and it came through, we would have to respond like we would a no-notice event, like an earthquake.

A lot of the preparation in the '50s and '60s wasn’t really adequate to the science of nuclear radiation. Is the science better now?

We have a great resource as a part of California, the Lawrence Livermore nuclear labs, and we routinely engage with them. They’re on our speed-dial. They’re a part of our overall system. And we’ve got some of the best scientists that are aware of this kind of thing.

The short answer is “yes.” We have a much better idea on impact scenarios and [radiation] plume modeling and fallout algorithms, down to what the number of blocks are that would be impacted and how many people. It depends upon if it happens in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the day. If you’re in Southern California during a Santa Ana condition, you’re going to get a different situation than if you have onshore winds, or no winds at all. So all of those things come into our assessments. But I will tell you that we are far more advanced than we were back in the 1960s in being able to pinpoint what the total impact would be.

At OES, in our planning and prevention, our nuclear and radiological office, we’re doing some tabletops and other red-team exercises in terms of what are some of the impacts should this occur, and what is our “consequence management” going to look like?

Anything in the works about public notification?

We’ve recently finished mapping all of the coastal communities for inundation should we see an earthquake and in consequence a tsunami. We’ve worked a lot with local governments and we’ve put in some sirens along the coast, because we want to be able to put out a warning should a tsunami be coming, get people to go to higher ground. The siren goes off -- hey, it gives you a head’s up.

The local governments would push out the message, whether on social media or emergency broadcast. Certainly if there’s something like a nuclear thing going on, we can use the exact same systems. It’s something that will address a multitude of events that we need to do.

Hey, look, we live in a disaster-prone state. You could be hit by fire, flood or earthquake. The worst-case scenario, nuclear attack, God forbid -- do you have a plan, a family plan? Do you have supplies? All the things we talk about for earthquake preparedness resonate with his kind of preparedness as well.

If there’s an ICBM coming, the reality is you’ve got 20 minutes. You don’t know where it’s going to land or what it’s going to do. You know there are going to be some losses -- the state or locals can do nothing to stop that. We’re depending on our federal counterparts at the Department of Defense to do their job, but if it does not work, then we’re dealing with a consequence management situation.

You’re going to have first responders who have been killed, you’re going to have a lot of people who have been killed, and a lot of injuries. Unlike an earthquake, you have the fallout issue here that needs to be contended with, so we need to address that with the right resources.

People need to have, just like any other disaster, a family plan. Supplies. Know where you’re at, where your family is. Have communications planned and just be prepared. Those people who are most prepared are most empowered to navigate a situation of any sort that may occur.

The old school -- this is also something from the ‘60s that has changed. It used to be you wait for the phone to ring. The state government and the federal government would not get involved; maybe the local government would say, Hey, we’ve got a problem down here, and the phone would ring.

You can’t do that any more. We are all connected. There’s not a single resource or jurisdiction that can handle anything exclusively on their own. And so we all work together as one team, one fight in this effort. It has to be including all the communities, including the public. They have to step up and do their responsibility as well.

I have this thing I call the 911 syndrome. People are used to dialing 911 and getting all these resources. It’s just not going to happen in a major event. They need to get past that and understand that the more empowered they are through planning family exercises and communications, the better able they’ll be able to navigate a situation like this.

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