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San Mateo County Health websites Emergency preparedness meeting held after disaster

By Henrietta J. Burroughs
East Palo Alto Today
Posted on February 19, 2010

East Palo Alto residents and government officials met Wednesday night at an emergency preparedness meeting in the aftermath of the plane crash, which occurred in East Palo Alto earlier that morning. Ironically, the meeting on February 17, was set weeks earlier and had been scheduled to discuss the possibility of a citizen’s corps being formed within East Palo Alto that would assist emergency officials and residents if and when a man-made or natural disaster struck the city.

Since reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, the scheduled meeting to discuss a potential disaster became a meeting in which presenters and community members discussed the real disaster – the plane crash on Beech Street -- which actually occurred.

For East Palo Alto’s Chief of Police Ron Davis it was a unique experience. He said the plane accident marked the first time, in his 25 years as a police professional, he had walked into a house damaged by falling objects from a plane that fell from the sky. 

At the meeting, which was held in the gymnasium of Costaño Elementary School, there were nearly as many city and county officials as community residents. The meeting included San Mateo County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, East Palo Alto Mayor David Woods, East Palo Alto City Council member Carlos Romero, Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman and other East Palo Alto and Menlo Park city representatives.

Burt had been invited to the original meeting to discuss possible measures that would be taken to prevent creeks in Palo Alto and East Palo from overflowing during a storm and flooding both municipalities. Several other previously planned discussions, like Burt’s, took place and were made even more relevant because of the timing of the plane crash.

Davis said the crash of the twin-engine Cessna in East Palo Alto displaced many residents who lived near the crash site. One such resident Lettecia Rayson said during the meeting that she felt frustrated when she returned from work about 9:30 a.m. after a neighbor had called her and told her about the plane crash. She said that for the whole day, up until the meeting she could not get any information as to when she could get back into her house. She seemed to be in tears as she told the group that emergency officials at the crash site seemed insensitive to her plight and to the plight of other residents who were shaken by the disaster.

After hearing her frustration, one of East Palo Alto's Police Captain's, Carl Estelle, who was at the meeting called his colleagues at the crash site and got the okay from them that Rayson could go home.

While this exchange was, apparently, going on between Estelle and his colleagues, Davis said that the one thing he heard the loudest was that many people who lived in the area where the plane crashed felt alone and let down by some of those who were officially there to help them, since they did not feel that they were getting adequate information. He said that there would be a government debriefing to bring the agencies involved in the disaster together to assess what was done and what could be done better. Then there would be a community debriefing that would follow the government debriefing.

The participants at the meeting seemed to agree that there should be a strong community component developed, which included city residents who would be trained to take major corrective action when another disaster occurred.

Romero said, “Communications is key to make sure our residents feel safe.” He said that the city and the residents needed to figure out which communications system would be the best for notifying residents that an emergency situation was taking place. Several residents discussed the effectiveness of the telephone notifications that were made to city residents and suggested various other systems ranging from email notifications to neighbors and city officials walking the streets and knocking on residents’ doors.

In the end, it was agreed that getting counseling for the young people and the adults who witnessed the plane crash first hand should be “the biggest priority.” East Palo Alto resident Heather Starnes concurred. She said her 17-year-old son saw it all and there were students all around who were on their way to school who saw the victims of the plane crash.

While Davis said there were major decisions stemming from the plane crash that were still to be made: for example, when residents displaced by the crash could return to their homes, the city was still on track to hold a citywide emergency preparedness exercise in May. He seemed to assure his audience that the exercise would include a community component like the ones discussed during the meeting.

The meeting ended with a prayer circle that was led by Rev. John Liotti who assisted residents earlier in the day when the plane crash occurred. When those in the prayer circle disbanded, Rayson was given a police escort to her home. 




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