Temecula event encourages emergency preparedness

Temecula Police Officer Teri Harney checks in during an earthquake drill at Temecula City Hall, during an Emergency Management Summit, Oct. 19. Shane Gibson photo

Business leaders and city officials from across the region gathered together Thursday, Oct. 19, at Temecula City Hall for a day where they could learn more about certain kinds of emergencies and prepare for them.

The city of Temecula’s first Emergency Management Business Continuity Summit was an all-day event that started around 7:30 a.m. and concluded by mid-afternoon. It included keynote speakers, panel discussions, informational booths and more.

Some of the topics covered included active shooter situations, cyber attacks and business operation emergency centers and how they work.

Robert Cardenas, risk manager for the city, said the event was designed to get all members of the community, talking about issues of emergency preparedness, but organizers especially wanted to get business owners thinking about what they could do to help in an emergency situation.

Cardenas used an example of city employees needing to reach out to a business for supplies during an emergency.

“What if their employees were in another city, and they were cut off because of a freeway incident or freeway closures?” Cardenas asked. “We want to make sure we’re working with our businesses to make sure they have contingency plans, in place, so they can be up and running in the case of an emergency.”


The safety event also coincided with the Great California Shakeout, which provided an opportunity to remind those who attended about earthquake safety, Cardenas said.

Shortly before noon, many people walked from inside City Hall to a grassy area outside as part of an organized earthquake drill. After the drill, a brief lunch was served.

Shortly after, a group of city officials gathered for a panel to talk about emergencies that had happened in their own cities and what their takeaways from those incidents were.

The group included Temecula City Manager Aaron Adams, Murrieta City Manager Kim Summers, San Jacinto City Manager Rob Johnson, Lake Elsinore Public Works Superintendent Rick De Santiago, Wildomar City Manager Gary Nordquist, Canyon Lake City Manager Aaron Palmer and Riverside County Emergency Management Department Director Kim Saruwatari.

Adams shared his experience with the fires that broke out in the Temecula area in 2016, one of which prompted the closure of multiple lanes on Interstate 15 during the weekend, causing traffic jams and forcing drivers to clog up nearby surface streets.

The city manager said one of the most important things was providing information such as alternative routes and details of what was happening with the fire on social media and the city’s website. He said he had a city public information officer admitted to the incident command center to relay updates about firefighting efforts.

“We did our best to sort of push this information out through our community,” Adams said.

Adams said that there were a couple of valuable things that he took away from the incident, one was the importance of relationships and another was establishing who to call and work with in times of emergency.

“We felt like we needed to take the lead on understanding who’s who in the zoo, I like to say,” he said. “We have posted at least two annual public information officer conferences here where we invite all districts, all cities, county… Everyone that we could potentially work with or need to work with, we invite them, we exchange numbers; we update our databases.”

The group discussed the immigration-related protests in Murrieta.

Summers talked about an incident in 2014 in which a plane with migrant women and children that had been flown from Texas and was scheduled to drop off those individuals to a border patrol facility within Murrieta city limits. That facility became the backdrop for a large-scale protest.

“Our council wanted to take a stance and say that they did not feel that was an appropriate place to be housing women and children,” Summers said. “It started out as a rather innocent press conference where they were simply stating that, and one line, one piece of video, was taken from our mayor making a statement … Taken out context, it rapidly went all around the world.”

“Everyone was doing a little bit of their part, but no one was talking, and we certainly weren’t in the same room and we weren’t coordinating at all,” she said, adding that city staff didn’t realize until after the fact that they needed some help.

She said in retrospect, the city could have gained a lot from increasing internal communication or activating its Emergency Operation Center and dealing with the situation that way.

“We’re stepping up our activities for our EOC,” she said. “We realize how important it is.”

Nordquist talked about a time on New Year’s Eve 2014 that Wildomar experienced about 10 inches of snowfall.

He said he found it personally challenging because he had grown up at the beach and had never been in a situation where he needed to deal with snow.

It was challenging for drivers in the area as well.

The I-15 was shut down from California Oaks Road in Murrieta to about Main Street in Lake Elsinore, so drivers were taking Wildomar’s surface streets, but certain vehicles – especially big trucks – were slipping, sliding and jackknifing as a result, Nordquist said.

There were also a lot of trees down. Nordquist estimates about 60 trees in total fell.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of trees that were down with the weight of the snow,” he said.

Nordquist said it’s hard to prepare for snow when you don’t regularly deal with it, but noted the city supports efforts to learn how to utilize four-wheel drive, as well as efforts to learn how to drive in inclement weather.

An unexpected fire landed at Lake Elsinore’s doorstep.

De Santiago discussed the 2013 Falls fire which charred more than 1,400 acres near Lake Elsinore and prompted the evacuation of residents in the area.

The fire had started near El Cariso Village, far from Lake Elsinore itself, but the Elsinore Effect – characterized by the sudden change in winds – quickly sent the blaze hurtling the other direction.

“Sure enough, that fire was knocking on our doorstep,” De Santiago said. “It was already down going into Lakeland Village.”

The incident caused a traffic bottleneck from people trying to make their way out of the area, he said.

“We’ve learned from those mistakes,” De Santiago said. “Never assume that it’s not going to get there, just prepare in advance. Make sure we get ahead of it before it’s down on our doorstep.”

Johnson talked about the severe flooding the city of San Jacinto experienced in February 1980 after a period of nine full days of rain.

He said about 8,500 residents lived in San Jacinto at that time, of which nearly half were evacuated from their homes.

Johnson said the city does have a planned levy project which will shore up the area and prevent similar flooding from occurring in the future. The city has completed much of the environmental studies for the project, but still needs about $20 million in funding to begin.

He said the city is working on updating its emergency management plan, recently completed a local hazard mitigation plan and is working to form new partnerships with local agencies.

“We call ourselves the 129-year-old startup city because there’s a lot of things we haven’t done in 129 years that we actually need to do and we’re doing them now,” Johnson said.

An unfamiliar illness affected the county in 2009.

When thousands of people in Mexico started contracting swine flu in 2009, followed by cases in California, the situation was scary because there was little information about the illness, Saruwatari said.

She said Riverside County’s Public Health Officer had made the decision to close down schools, April 30, 2009, as more was being learned. Not long after, county officials decided that might not be necessary.

“Just a few days after that, the CDC actually reversed the guidance that came out about school closures,” Saruwatari said. “So, we’re closing schools when there were cases identified or suspect cases, and just a few days later, the CDC said, ‘OK, we now know enough about this disease. It’s not as serious as we thought, so we’re not going to close schools anymore,” she said.

Saruwatari said some of the lessons learned from dealing with the swine flu at the county level included being flexible and adapting to plans as they change and being transparent.

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