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California is not prepared to protect vulnerable residents from natural disasters, state auditor finds

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Posted at 10:25 PM, Jan 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-31 01:26:05-05

California is not adequately prepared to protect its most vulnerable residents from natural disasters. That's according to a report from the California State Auditor.

The report took a look at three counties that have all faced major disasters in the form of recent wildfires: Butte, Sonoma and Ventura. Although the audited counties were faced with wildfires ( the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires, and the 2017 Thomas Fire), the audit focused on emergency planning and how prepared the counties were to protect people with needs that cannot be met by traditional emergency response and recovery methods.

Key findings noted in the report stated, "Despite available guidance for emergency planning for people with access and functional needs from FEMA, Cal OES, and other disaster response entities, the three counties we reviewed are not adequately prepared to protect vulnerable residents during natural disasters."

By vulnerable residents, the report means older adults, people with disabilities, chronic conditions, temporary injuries and those who either speak very little or no English.

"Although everyone is vulnerable during a natural disaster," the report stated, "people with access and functional needs are even more vulnerable. As a result, these individuals have historically been disproportionately affected by natural disasters."

The report stated that none of the counties audited had prearranged transportation agreements for evacuation assistance or sent critical warning messages in multiple languages. Two of the counties did not use wireless emergency alerts designed to reach all cell phones.

The report also stated that none of the counties had up-to-date plans for alert and warning their residents from danger from natural disasters, conducting evacuations or sheltering residents.

They also stated none of of the counties had implemented key best practices from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations.

The auditor's office did recognize that their findings do not mean these disasters could have been avoided or any less tragic had other plans been in placed.

"We recognize that no amount of planning or preparation will guarantee success during a natural disaster," the report stated, "This is particularly true when the natural disaster is historic in size and scope, as has been the case in each of these three counties in the past two years. Each county we reviewed recently experienced wildfires that were among the most destructive or deadly in the history of California."

The auditor's office said it’s important to understand the scope of this report. They say they did not evaluate or reach conclusions about fault or liability, nor did they review specific claims or assess whether that state or any of the three counties they visited breached any legal duty of care.

However, according to the auditor's office, these failures leave local jurisdictions without key resources that could help them develop plans to protect people with access and functional needs during future natural disasters.

The auditor's office also stated that Cal OES, the State's lead agency for emergency management, has not done its part to protect and support communities during times of disasters.

The report recommends Cal OES review counties’ emergency plans to ensure they align with best practices, involve organizations that represent individuals with access and functional needs in developing state emergency plans and guidance for local jurisdictions, and annually distribute lessons learned from natural disasters.

The auditor's office said the focus of this report was to review the best practices prior to emergency events and help counties better prepare for future disasters.

The California State Auditor's office says it’s important to understand the scope of this report. They say they did not evaluate or reach conclusions about fault or liability, nor did they review specific claims or assess whether that state or any of the three counties they visited breached any legal duty of care.

You can view the full report here: