Katrina’s FEMA response sparks memory of quake

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Lulled out of his false sense of peace by a noticeable absence of books dealing with earthquake preparedness, Joel Leach said it was such a reality check that prompted him to attempt what no one else seemed willing to do.

Leach said that within a year he compiled information that would greatly improve a citizen’s chances of surviving an unpredictable earthquake.

“It’s also luck of the draw. One house can be damaged terribly while another is not touched,” said Leach, who is a music professor at CSUN and author of “Earthquake Prepared: Securing Your Home and Protecting Your Family,” which was published in 1993, a year before the Northridge earthquake.

While his Canoga Park home was spared extensive damage from the Jan. 17, 1994, earthquake, bridges on several major interstates collapsed, power took days to be restored, and the Music Building that housed his classroom on campus was damaged.

“Many of us had to work out of hundreds of portable classrooms and tents that (CSUN) President Blenda Wilson called ‘domes’,” said Leach, director of the music industry studies program at CSUN.

Just like the troubling and uplifting stories and images that are associated with Hurricane Katrina, the reconstruction of campus in the years that followed and the recent Topanga wildfire expose different ways that federal and state emergency assistance is distributed to declared disaster areas.

In the days following the earthquake, which was declared a national disaster and caused billions of dollars in damage, auditors and assessors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency converged on the disaster scene to document the damage to the public and private sectors.

“Obviously there is a tremendous amount of paperwork when talking about those kinds of dollars. What some people might call red tape,” said Colin Donahue, director of Facilities Planning at CSUN.

Donahue said the last of the $407 million reconstruction money that CSUN received from FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services was spent last year, and that only some paperwork remains.

The final phase of the 10-year recovery effort restored the major roadways, parking spaces and fields where the temporary facilities were housed, he said.

“Basically, it’s a reimbursement program. You have to complete the work of documenting the eligibility of the repairs,” Donahue said. “The university tried to work very closely with state and local officials, and in the long run tried to ensure the campus got all the money and repairs that were due.”

Although the circumstances surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the Northridge earthquake, and the Topanga fire that burned thousands of acres and caused millions in damage differ greatly, some say the emergency response and recovery shouldn’t have.

Dale Chessey, spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Services, said that first the ability of regional first-responders must be exhausted before any outside agency is asked to provide resources and equipment.

Chessey said disaster-prone California has always followed steps in a coordinated fashion and that other states have began to model their emergency response programs after California’s.

“What happened in Louisiana was because local governments still needed to strengthen the whole concept of having an emergency plan in place,” Chessey said. “You have to have an emergency plan in place, practice it and know the sequencing.”

FEMA had initially asked OES to identify 1,000 long-term shelters in California for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, then dropped the request once housing closer to Louisiana was found, Chessey said. Criticism of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina recently forced the resignation of former FEMA director Michael Brown.

City, state and federal agencies have the option to formally declare a state of emergency to secure funding and get reimbursed for disaster response. Because the recent Topanga fire grew beyond the ability of local responders to tackle it themselves, local officials did not waste time in asking for state and federal assistance to help offset costs.

Linda Parks, who represents some of the fire-ravaged areas for the 2nd District on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, said that while the federal government has already approved funding for 75 percent of the damages, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been reluctant to declare the charred hillsides and canyons a disaster area.

“There’s no question the governor should declare it a disaster area,” Parks said. “The state saves so much money in the long run because this major response saved hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. If no outside fire departments came, we would have seen more damage.”

She said unless the participating fire departments are reimbursed for their assistance, they would be forced to pay for the costs associated with responding to a major disaster out of their city’s budget. She said she is not encouraged by the fact that the governor took a long time to declare the La Conchita mudslide a disaster area.

“We think this time he might not because he’s only looking at (a) total cost of $8 million in damages,” Parks said. “I think it’s called being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

As for CSUN, not only was the campus eventually able to open for the Spring 1994 semester, but the way the campus looks today is due in part to the Northridge earthquake, said John Chandler, university spokesperson.

“CSUN suffered the most damage ever experienced by a university in a natural disaster,” he said. “But we couldn’t spend money any way we wanted to. We had to submit proposals and get approval because it was federal money.”

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.