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California Not Prepared To Protect Vulnerable Residents From Natural Disasters, Says Auditor

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Andrew Nixon/CPB
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A burned neighborhood in Paradise, California after the Camp Fire in November, 2019

California is not adequately prepared to protect vulnerable residents from natural disasters, according to a new state auditor's report.

It looked at three counties that have faced major wildfires in recent years: Butte, Sonoma and Ventura. The audit assessed whether their emergency planning could protect people with needs that cannot be met by traditional emergency response and recovery methods.

“Despite guidance from FEMA and other organizations, none of the counties used key best practices for emergency planning to protect their most vulnerable residents during natural disasters,” the report states. 

This includes older adults and people with disabilities, chronic conditions, temporary injuries and limited English proficiency.

Butte County's Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken said her county is appreciative the state is taking an interest in emergency response, but that they don’t “necessarily agree with all of the findings."

Butte County made that clear to the state, and the state responded.

"They basically rebutted everything we said we didn't agree with in their report, they said they didn't agree with in our response,” McCracken said. “So, I think the bottom line is we will continue to agree to disagree."

McCracken said the county's ability to protect vulnerable residents is not adequately documented, but agrees it can do a better job. She also says it is important to update the emergency response plan, but the people that do that are still working on recovery efforts after the most devastating and deadly fire in state history.

"Our residents' recovery is the primary priority of the county right now,” McCracken said. “We're over a year past the Camp Fire, we still have not the chance to complete an after-action report."

She said those reports are typically done within a few months, but the scale of the Camp Fire is unprecedented. She says next year the county will tackle identifying what can be improved and prioritize what to change first.

Patrick Maynard with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services said his office also appreciates the critical look provided by the state.

"There are definitely some things that were mentioned that were identified long ago as being issues that we've worked to change and have actually already changed," Maynard said.

One of those is the practice of issuing bilingual emergency messages, in both English and Spanish. The Ventura office changed that following the Thomas Fire in 2017. 

The state's Office of Emergency Services was criticized in the audit for not supporting local offices in development of plans for vulnerable populations.

Cal OES declined an interview, but Deputy Director for Crisis Communication & Public Affairs Brian Ferguson did issue a statement that said the office “is committed to supporting local emergency officials to ensure that the needs of all Californians are met — before, during and after emergency situations.”

Maynard said one way Cal OES could be more helpful would be to alert his and other local offices when new recommendations are issued.

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio