I'm sure you've heard that your earthquake kit is supposed to have three days worth of drinking water in it. But in case you haven't been able to pull that together, or if there's just no room in your apartment for that many water jugs, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will try to have your back as quickly and as much as it can. But it could be complicated, and could take at least a full day, and SFist just spoke with the PUC's Emergency Planning Director Mary Ellen Carroll to get more of the details.
The PUC was quick to respond after we, via an amateur cartographer, published a map of the PUC's emergency-drinking-water hydrants that actually reflected an out-of-date program. Public Outreach director Amy Sinclair said there's "no way should ANYONE be opening these hydrants except the Fire or Water Departments," and she added that the most important factor is public health and safety, not to mention the ability of the fire department to put out fires after an earthquake.
Here is what Carroll had to say on the subject, and on the so-called blue-dot hydrant program.
SFist: Could you give me some background on the emergency-drinking-water program and how it's evolved?
Well, let me start just by explaining that the Emergency Planning Division is new. I wasn't here in 2006, so I can only tell you what I know. When I got here, someone showed me some information about the blue-dot fire hydrants, and the map, and I realized that there was really only a map, and there wasn't an operational plan behind it. When you respond after an emergency, particularly after an earthquake, a lot has to happen before it can be determined that a hydrant is functioning and has potable water coming out of it. That part of the plan wasn't really developed. We decided as an organization that we had to pull black on this emergency-drinking-water program and make sure that any plan we had would be safe for the public.
We've been working over the last three years to develop a different plan and to walk away from the blue-dot hydrants for the moment.
What is the biggest concern with the actual water coming from these hydrants?
If we have an earthquake, we could very well have major disruption in the water distribution system meaning the smaller pipes that distribute water to peoples' homes may break. And the larger pipes in the system, like those that deliver water to high-pressure hydrants and other places throughout the city, are perhaps less likely to be compromised and could potentially be put into use for providing drinking water.
We are anticipating that we may have to do mass distribution of water from one of these points, some of which may be hydrants, but we can't know where those points are going to be until after the earthquake. It's impossible to say, before an earthquake happens, where the safest drinking water will be coming from, and where, for instance, water may be more needed to put out fires.
Before coming to the PUC I worked for the health department on emergency response, and we dealt a lot with establishing shelter locations. When it comes to sheltering after a emergency, we don't tell people ahead of time, "This is where you'll need to go to find shelter after an earthquake" because there's no way to know if that shelter will still be there.
So, in other words, no one should be running out and opening up hydrants with their own wrenches.
Public safety is the biggest concern here. You don't want people injured because of the pressure of the water coming out of the hydrants, and you don't want people drinking the water if it's unsafe. Also, if you release water from one point in the system, it could have other repercussions in terms of water pressure elsewhere in the system where it may be needed to put out a fire. Cross contamination from wastewater pipes can also be caused by loss of pressure.
How will you be getting the word out about where and how to access drinking water after an earthquake?
Water quality messaging is a huge concern for us, and we want to get that information out as quickly and as widely as possible. We're working with NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams) which is a Fire Department program that's pretty much everywhere in the city. It's a class you can attend, and you then become a certified volunteer under the direction of the Fire Department, in the event of an emergency. It's a way for us to partner with a group to get information out to the public as quickly as possible, on the ground. We're going to add a piece to NERT volunteers' training that will include how to monitor drinking-water stations at fire hydrants once these have been tested and deemed safe by the PUC.
We want people to know that this NERT program exists, and if people want to learn how to help their community in the event of an emergency, they should look up and attend NERT classes. They're free. [Editors' Note: You can find your neighborhood's NERT coordinator here.]
Additionally, we will be coming together with the Department of Emergency Management and other city departments at the Emergency Operations Center, and working together to get the word out through various channels. If there's no Internet and no power and no cell service, the radio will be one major way that information will go out. But information will go out in every possible way that's available to us, and we want more and more people to connect with us on Twitter and follow the DEM in order to get that information. We've seen worldwide, after recent disasters, that social media is the primary way that information gets disseminated.
What else can you tell me about the PUC's emergency-response plan, like in terms of power?
I mean, you can't talk about emergency response without talking about the water programs. One of the important aspects of this is that we will be able to deliver, within 24 hours after an earthquake, water to anyone who needs it. And keep in mind that we not only deliver water to San Francisco, but to a total of 2.6 million people, 2/3 of whom are in the East Bay and South Bay.
I'm proud to say the infrastructure project [improving and fortifying aging water pipes] is 80 percent done. The PUC has just put together this whole emergency response division. We are responsible for emergency-response plans, and we walk through potential scenarios and we are constantly self-evaluating and improving these responses. There are emergency-response training guidelines that come from the federal government, and we're in a constant state of training and re-training on those. And a lot of what we do, too, is partnering, as we do with the Department of Emergency Management.
Also, we have emergencies all the time, not just earthquake. We own major watersheds in the East Bay and South Bay and right now we're on high alert for wildfires. And if there's any water main breaks, anywhere, we have to deal with that.
We suffered about $50 million in damage in our hydro-electric power system during the Rim Fire last year, and we had over 300 people in our organization involved in that response. We're actually still working on the recovery work connected to the Rim Fire.
The power that we generate is hydro-electric, from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and dam, so a lot of where that power comes in is controlled by PG&E. We generate power for Muni and for many municipal buildings, however during the Rim Fire, for instance, we actually stopped producing power, but the public wasn't ever aware of it. We just switched everything over either to reserve power or to PG&E without any outages. The power situation after an earthquake is going to be much more of a PG&E question.
What's your advice for how the general public should prepare for an emergency?
They should definitely see and follow the information on SF72.org
If you're asking me what people should do to be prepared: potable water storage a minimum of a gallon per person per day, with three days at a minimum, but more if you have room for it.
We feel fairly confident that we'll be able to deliver water to San Francisco within a reasonable amount of time, but everyone needs to prepare for any possibility. The City knows, though, that not everyone can prepare, and not everyone will be able to for various reasons. Water will certainly be our highest priority.