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Lessons learned from 2017 disasters, Yuba-Sutter officials reflect on the recent past

March 11, 2018 GMT

Between the Oroville Dam emergency spillway and wildfires, the past year was a learning opportunity for area emergency services officials.

Though emergency response plans have long been in place, 2017 presented lessons in public trust, public notification, emergency center organization and preparedness.

Officials submitted reflections on what their entities have learned about emergency response and how Yuba-Sutter is better prepared for the future.

Chuck Smith, Sutter County public information officer

Smith traveled to Emmitsburg, Maryland Feb. 21 and 22 on behalf of Sutter County to participate in the 25th annual National Dam Safety Program Technical Seminar, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Emergency Training Center.


At the seminar titled, “Maintaining Public Trust through Effective Emergency Management,” Smith spoke about the county’s relationship to the Oroville Dam prior to, during and after the emergency.

“I addressed how helpful it would have been to have an accurate inundation map, and why allowing the public to see inundation maps long before a situation develops might help educate them about the potential threat posed by dams (there are at least nine high hazard potential dams that would flood all or parts of Sutter County if they failed),” Smith wrote in a memo to county officials, provided to the Appeal-Democrat. “I also spoke about how both the dam owners/operators and the emergency management team from the county need to work more closely to develop better lines of communication.”

Smith said he gave the room a taste of the look and feel of when public trust is lost, playing video of comments from the March 2017 town hall meeting, and explaining some of the responsive actions since the emergency: how a downstream coalition of local governments, local businesses and residents is challenging the dam’s FERC license; how legislation will mandate how and what frequency dams are inspected; and how lawsuits have been filed to reclaim costs from the evacuation and to compensate farmers who lost land in the river bottoms due to severe erosion.

Smith also explained how California’s new law – SB 92 – will require inundation maps be made available to the public (Shasta Dam will not be subject to the new law, because it is perceived as a risk to the public, a policy adopted after 9-11).

“It was a good opportunity for Sutter County to tell the story of all communities who live downstream from dams,” Smith said. “I thought it was particularly important to stress local emergency management officials have as much responsibility to go upstream as dam owners/operators have to go downstream. We need to work together to make sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs. I also thought it important to stress what it looked like when you lose the public’s trust.”


Smith said his biggest impression was most dam owners and operators don’t deal with dams the size of Oroville, and that most of the country’s dams are much smaller with a smaller inundation footprint.

His other take-away was that a lot of people are thinking about how to improve communication between the dam owners/operators and downstream communities, but it will take work.

“Real-time inundation map modeling will take public investment,” he said.

Sutter County residents can visit BePreparedSutter.org for information on how to be prepared for emergency.

Russ Brown, Yuba County communications and legislative affairs coordinator

Brown headed to Santa Barbara in late January to assist with community outreach following that county’s deadly mudslides – or “debris flows” as they were called officially.

He said the Cascade Fire and the Montecito debris flows played out in similar fashion, in that the mudslides created dangers less like a flood and more like a wildfire; the end result being a wall of deadly force moving through neighborhoods at a high rate of speed.

“Warnings were issued ahead of time about dangers that could accompany such severe weather, but there was no way to predict whether a disaster would actually occur or, if it did, where it would occur,” Brown said in an email Thursday. “The suddenness of the emergency initially inspired the heroics of public safety teams and neighbors, who worked together to get as many people to safety as possible. Automated alert systems in both Yuba and Santa Barbara counties also played important roles to mobilize the neighborhoods.”

Brown said the Yuba County Office of Emergency Services is working through approval processes with federal agencies to create more opportunities to push out emergency alerts through cell phones. In December, Yuba County OES Manager Scott Bryan testified at a Legislative Joint Committee that was examining communication during all of the deadly fires that tore through Northern California in early October.

“We are following legislative efforts that seek to bolster emergency communications and alerts statewide,” he said.

Brown said there’s also been discussions about the use of sirens, but the cost and effectiveness of such a system in the foothills makes it questionable as a solution. The county is working to improve communications, but for now the best defense against any disaster is to sign up for alerts, have an emergency go-bag ready at all times and to have a plan on how to get out safely. Yuba County residents can visit BePreparedYuba.org to get ready for any disaster.

Brenna Howell, Sutter County emergency manager

Howell said the Office of Emergency Management is continuing to improve the functionality of the Emergency Operations Center, while also recovering money spent during last year’s storm emergencies, and seeking grants to improve preparedness, response and recovery efforts for the future. The county has conducted position-specific training in the Standardized Emergency Management System, with more training scheduled and regularly held for employees.

“In the past eight weeks alone, more than 150 Sutter County and many city employees have received emergency management training, including more than 50 city and county employees, who took the training together,” Howell said in an email Friday.

Last fall, the county conducted specialized training on the role of elected officials in an emergency for the Board of Supervisors and council members from Yuba City and Live Oak.

“Disasters focus attention on a community’s mitigation efforts, emergency preparedness, response and recovery resiliency, therefore we must continually evaluate and improve,” she said. “The Office of Emergency Management has the responsibility for coordinating the full emergency management process, not only for the unincorporated areas of Sutter County, but for all jurisdictions, including the incorporated cities of Live Oak and Yuba City.”

The department is purchasing supplies and equipment to use in future responses and making adjustments to the layout of the operations center. Employees will be trained with the equipment they will be using during a real emergency at the desks they will be using and in the section they will be assigned, Howell said, making the county more efficient earlier in the response cycle.

She said the county has recovered around $750,000 in state and federal reimbursements to date for response to the winter storms last January and February, and that it continues to pursue reimbursements. The department is seeking out grants for emergency management training, supplies and planning, with one area of focus being robust flood contingency planning products.

Howell is also tasked with updating the county’s emergency operations plan, as well as the Hazard Mitigation Plan, which identified potential hazards and recommends ways to mitigate those hazards before they occur.

“I’ve been here close to a year, first as a consultant and then full time in January,” Howell said. “What I see are a lot of dedicated individuals in the cities and the county, committed to effective emergency planning, response and recovery.”