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What Role Would Arizona Play, If California Had A Major Catastrophe?

Interview by Lauren Gilger with Wendy Smith-Reeve

LAUREN GILGER: Arizona could play a major role in helping Californians displaced by earthquakes, wildfires or other disasters. Two powerful tremors shook Southern California last weekend, prompting Arizona emergency management officials to go on alert. But Arizona has plans in place to deal with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Californians who could flee their state in case of disaster. In fact, last year they staged a large-scale mock disaster event to play out the challenges the state could face if the “big one” hit southern California. We talked to Wendy Smith-Reeve, director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management, more about it.

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WENDY SMITH-REEVE: We have plans in place and as does California, Nevada; and this event would impact all three of those states pretty significantly. So we partnered with California and with Nevada on this exercise and learning from their previous exercises of their response to a significant earthquake in Southern California. That helped us with planning on what we could anticipate, as far as people leaving California, seeking another location or meeting up with family.

GILGER: Why is this the scenario you wanted to test? Like, is this something that is on the top of your radar in terms of likelihood?

SMITH-REEVE: Well, it’s something that we always need to be prepared for. And it’s one of those low probability, high consequence events. So you know, our standard hazards that we train for and deal with on an annual basis, you know, is flooding, wildland fire and those those types of events. So, those are tried and true. And so this was an opportunity to test, you know, mass sheltering, mass feeding operations, housing, fuel. People are not going to be leaving with a full tank of gas from California. And if fuel lines are compromised anywhere in-between, that’s going to be a challenge that we as a state need to overcome in order to help those individuals progress to their final destination, whether it’s Arizona or someplace else within the nation.

GILGER: So there is one thing right off the bat. What kinds of other major concerns are there right off the bat? Like, communication? Like, cell phone lines? Things like that, is that another big one?

SMITH-REEVE: Absolutely. And so, communication is always key. And so, setting up communication points along the route, you know, rest areas or a natural location for people to stop. We can provide water, snacks and information at that location. Also, working with our communication partners, we identified other resources. We knew about, what they call, cell on wheels, where they can bring in a temporary cell tower and set it up wherever it needs to be. But there’s also, cellular on wings, that we learned about. And so, they have something aerial that they can place into an area that provides cellular capability a certain radius from that apparatus.

GILGER: So other challenges then, I would imagine, medical care would be another?

SMITH-REEVE: Absolutely. So, medical care, not just immediate medical care but also longer term medical care. So, what is the status within our own hospitals? Where is there opportunity? So, when we’re sending individuals to those medical facilities we’re sending them to the right facility that has capacity to support their needs; and identify other triage areas where we can provide other medical type assistance, that maybe does not require a hospital or an emergency room.

GILGER: How would this be geographically located? Like, you’re talking about a wave of people arriving in western Arizona and moving east. Would this be spread out across the state?

SMITH-REEVE: So what we would look to do, is identify, at the time of the event, where capacity lies. So what does Flagstaff have the ability to support? What does Phoenix metropolitan area and in what communities? Because we have a very large area here, and a lot of capability in the Phoenix metropolitan area. What does Tucson have available? But, also, there’s other smaller venues as people migrate across. So, does Sierra Vista have some capability? So, if anyone’s going along that Southern Corridor, you know,… it’s identifying those primary routes and corridors and opportunities and resources that are available along the way or that we can send in those directions to further enhance those capabilities in those areas.

GILGER: So… much of what you do is about the unknown. I kind of wonder, like, how much can you really prepare and how much can you prepare for? We don’t know the answer to that or we don’t know how this will play out.

SMITH-REEVE: So, we have the state emergency response and recovery plan. That plan has been in place, I think I still have the initial, in fact, I do have the initial document from 1966. But we update that plan… every single year. It’s available on our Website. We have more than 150 partners identified as having roles and responsibilities and capability in that plan. And so, we really use that plan as our starting point to understand; here’s the situation,… here’s what we know right now, here are the partners that can come in and provide support and assistance to help meet these needs. So, that’s always our starting point, it’s our go to place. But… the gold in all of this, is the planning process itself. It’s making those connections. It’s understanding what those agencies, the programs, the services and the support that they can provide. So it becomes automatic. On our end to say, you know, we know these partners have the ability to meet this need that is an identified gap. So let’s bring them in as quickly as possible… and shore that up so we can move on to the next thing.

GILGER: All right, Wendy Smith-Reeve is the director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. Thank you so much for coming in.

SMITH-REEVE: Thank you.


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