Preparing for disaster: County gets $60,000 to plan for health crisis |

Preparing for disaster: County gets $60,000 to plan for health crisis

William Ferchland

In Tahoe, if someone is not a family member or friend of a person serving in the Middle East, the reminders of the United States as a nation at war are mostly in the media. Images of bombings in Madrid and London underscore terrorists remain on the offensive.

Officials in El Dorado County are aware the county is not likely at the top of a terrorist’s target list, but the area could experience a spillover of displaced people during an emergency situation.

Marty Hackett, a sergeant with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department involved with the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said such planning to handle an influx of evacuees began in 1997 when the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers had unprecedented high-stream flows.

“We’re talking worst-case scenario,” Hackett said. “We don’t want to unduly scare people, but the ’97 flood got us thinking we could see thousands of people coming up here.

“We were looking at what would happen if this was on a larger scale, and then came 9/11 and it kicked in other concerns,” he added.

Although Hackett said plans have been made for the county to accommodate hundreds of thousands of nonresidents, the same plan would be enacted even if 500 people flood into the area.

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Citing Highway 50 as the main thoroughfare from the Bay Area and Sacramento area into the county, Hackett said great care would be undertaken to keep the stretch of highway between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe unclogged should Bay Area residents head for the hills.

“It’ a major thoroughfare that needs to keep moving,” Hackett said.

People who have a second home or family and friends in Tahoe would likely be allowed to drive to the basin. But those who don’t have a destination besides Tahoe will be pulled off the highway. It’s a main priority.

In addition, if the disaster involved a chance of contamination, those entering the county would be evaluated on their health. Shelters would be divided between the healthy and the sick.

The county recently received a $60,000 grant called the Cities Readiness Initiative from the Center of Disease Control to assess and prepare a plan for distributing medicine during a large-scale health emergency.

Emergencies listed on the center’s Web site detailing the initiative included a bioterrorism attack or nuclear accident.

Sacramento, Yolo and Placer counties received the same grant, said Lois Hathway, program manager in the Public Preparedness Division of the El Dorado County Public Health Department.

Hathway said the county has to immunize its 169,000 residents in the event of a health disaster. Resources will be stressed, however, if displaced people arrive in droves.

“We have to be prepared for people coming in and how we’re going to serve them,” she said.

At Nevada’s Division of Emergency Management, Rick Martin, recovery and mitigation supervisor, said the type of response to an emergency would be determined by the size of the disaster. City and county authorities would be the first to determine the response.

And if an area is deemed unsafe and evacuations are called for, then people basically can use their discretion on where to go.

“(Authorities) don’t tell them where not to go unless it’s unsafe so if people decided they want to go to South Lake Tahoe and it’s safe to do so then they would be going in that direction but we wouldn’t necessarily have a shelter in South Lake Tahoe for the Sacramento area,” said Sheryl Tankersley, information officer with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We try to get shelters established as close to home as possible.”

Plans deal with evacuating the Lake Tahoe Basin in case of a wildfire, not dealing with a sudden influx of people, said Richard Mirgon, director of communications for Nevada’s Division of Emergency Management.

“We’ve never really visited that scenario,” he said, remembering how in the late ’60s people spoke, and sang, of going to higher ground for fear of California becoming an island from massive earthquakes.

If such an influx occurred, the stream of traffic from California would be directed through the basin to somewhere in Nevada, such as Reno, Mirgon said.

Casinos would be a great resource for their beds, generator power, and size if they needed to become shelters, he said.

But the best contingency plan falls on individuals. Sgt. Hackett, with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, said people should have plenty of water, food, clothing, first aid and overnight supplies such as sleeping bags and tents.

“It starts with prevention in that you take the steps to protect yourself to be alert,” Hackett said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at