L.A.'s Windstorm: Wake-up Call for Disaster Preparedness

The worst storm in L.A.’s living memory revealed the city's deep infrastructure flaws and lack of leadership, says blogger and longtime NELA resident Tony Butka.

Wednesday evening, the residents of Northeast L.A. as well as Pasadena and South Pasadena were hammered with gale-force winds. Debris and uprooted trees made the area look like something out of The Wizard of Oz tornado scene with Dorothy and Toto. Downed power lines and busted water mains—in addition to the rain of anything loose and pieces of old roofs—completed the carnage.

That Disoriented-in-L.A. Feeling

Waking up the next morning was like being in the aftermath of a major disaster—eerie silence, no electricity, debris everywhere and a sense of total isolation. No television/cable/DirecTV and—oh, my God—no Internet! About then, we started worrying—way after the fact—about how much charge we had on our cell phones (no electricity means no charging of portable computers, iPhones, etc. etc.).

And this being L.A., there was not much neighbor-to-neighbor communication. Most folks were out trying to brave the roads to get to work/school/whatever—and it was a while before some of the rest of us stumbled out from our homes to ask if anyone else had power and what the heck was going on.

Personally, I think the situation was exacerbated by the intentional design of the new code for smoke detectors. The electricity may have gone out, but these devices from hell kept going off in our house every 15 minutes all night long. I even disconnected them and they still went off. I was thinking very unkind things about the Fire Department and government regulation as I repeatedly leapt up from a freezing bed. And, oh, yes—no electricity means no thermostat, so no heat, even though there was gas. Uggh!

Whither the Political Elite?

And where were the mayor, the City Council, the police chief, the fire chief, and the Department of Water and Power brass?

Yeah, where were these seriously expensive leaders? I mean, usually you can’t turn on the TV or radio without being bombarded with their bombast. Occupy L.A.? You bet. Foreign policy initiatives by the City Council? Of course. Heck, if you can find a group of more than 15 Angelenos anywhere in the city, you have to beat back the elected officials with a stick as they hover for a photo op!

Well, not Thursday morning. This was different. This required leadership, someone taking charge, stepping up, doing something. Actually fixing things. Being a grown up. So where were our leaders? Nowhere to be found.

God Dropped the Hammer

Personally, I adhere to the theory that they all vanished in a puff of smoke—just as in a magic trick—after God dropped the hammer on Northeast L.A. But some of my friends prefer the theory that they disappeared in a cloud of dust as they beat feet away from responsibility.

On the not-so-funny front, where the heck was the disaster plan? Remember, more than 350,000 Angelenos were left with no electricity, ravaged streets and homes. So where was the emergency broadcast information? Where was the hot line? Where were the emergency shelters for folks such as some of my more than 70-year-old neighbors?

I also discovered the joy of being a part of the underclass. If you rely on radio for news, there basically isn’t any anymore. There is a ton of talk radio blathering to niche markets, but KFWB is gone from news all the time, 1070 is intermittent, ditto for 640 etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. There wasn’t even any emergency broadcast alert for folks in the disaster area. Goodness not.

It was the same for television. Outside of the occasional “Oh, my, this is really bad for Northeast L.A. and Pasadena” refrain, TV ignored the event until the next day, when they could get some pretty pictures of the natives. Again, no real news or help—and no elected officials. I know this because I went out and got a battery-operated TV, figuring that if radio was useless maybe TV would be more useful. Save your money.

So how did our infrastructure let us know about the disaster and what to do? Well, they sent out email blasts! Yes, you got it—they sent out not very helpful emails to folks who mostly did not have any access to email because they had no electricity and no Internet access. What a masterstroke of communications skill!

Trying to use 311 to find out information was like being in an Alice in Wonderland of 15-minute wait times—only to be transferred to another wait time. Call José Huizar? Not open until 9 a.m., thanks. And after 9 a.m., the hold and wait game.

'Where’s the Plan, People?'

If I seem a little steamed up about all of this, I am. Just as important—and a reason for concern for every Angeleno—is the fact that our experience in Northeast L.A. with an event “only” affecting 350,000 residents in mostly poorer diverse communities should be a wake up call for those in the rest of the City.

Where’s the disaster plan? We sure as heck didn’t see one. A friend of mine once quipped that the Department of Water and Power has an Emergency Disaster Plan—but no one has ever been able to find it. Ditto for our elected officials. What if this event had taken out the San Fernando Valley? Westwood? Downtown L.A.? Where’s the plan, people?

As a final note, on Thursday I received by mail—yes, the much-maligned U.S. Postal Service still worked—three notices from the Bureau of Sanitation about “proposed increases in the sewer service charge (SSC) for the City of Los Angeles.” A perfect balance between the broken promises of the L.A. political class and reality for the residents of the City of Angels.

This is a slightly edited version of Tony Butka’s blog, “God Drops the Hammer on Northeast L.A.— Mayor, Council, Disappear in a Puff of Smoke,” published here with the author’s permission from his NELA Lives! blog.

Susan R December 08, 2011 at 04:32 PM
I agree with ChickenBoyFan. Too much money is spent on special events that are only there for a day and then gone. Just like the "Cindo de Mayo" Cypress Park parade that costs $10,000 and lasts only a few hours. Money is better spent on beautification, helping others, security for the neighborhood, or anything else that is long lasting and not just for a day.
Susan R December 08, 2011 at 04:34 PM
This is why neighborhood councils should NOT get a penny. Their intent was to be a voice to city hall. That has been lost.
ChickenBoyFan December 08, 2011 at 06:22 PM
Neighborhood councils need at least a prudent reserve for operations, but it is true that when all of the money is gone, no one shows up for meetings except for the die-hards in the community. God Bless em all.
Ajay Singh December 08, 2011 at 06:30 PM
In some cases—alluding to ChickenBoyFan's comment about Neighborhood Councils—"no one shows up for meetings" even when "all the money" is there!
Tony Butka December 09, 2011 at 05:11 AM
I'm sorry you chose to take my general criticism of the Mayor and the Council in this event as a personal attack against Councilman Huizar. I doubt he was much better or worse than anyone else in helping out. "And where were the mayor, the City Council, the police chief, the fire chief, and the Department of Water and Power brass?" As to my comments as to the lack of a plan for disaster, as well as my personal lack of a plan for disaster (shared by many other residents, as I discovered), I stand by the comments.


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