Sammamish unprepared for disaster, says city consultant

City_of_SammamishWhen it comes to disaster preparedness, Sammamish is unprepared.

This is the conclusion of a consultant hired by the City to assess its emergency management planning.

The results, first revealed to the City’s Public Safety Committee June 22, paints an alarming picture of just how unprepared City government is to handle a major disaster like an earthquake. The City also failed to comply with federal and state law to prepare plans. The City failed to join a King County regional planning effort in 2014—and still hasn’t.

The consultant, Gail Harris of GCH Disaster Solutions, painted a grim picture to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. The committee consists of Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama Council Members Tom Hornish and Christie Malchow, Deputy City Manager Jessi Bon and other City staff members. The police and fire departments are also members.

Among the findings:

  • The most recent emergency plan approved by the State, as required by law, is from 2001—before 9/11. Updates in 2012 and 2016 had not been submitted to the State for approval. Updates

    Emergency planning consultant Gail Harris finds Sammamish is unprepared for a major emergency.

    are supposed to happen every two years, under State law.

  • Sammamish has not applied for various grants to help fund emergency plans.
  • Emergency planning is about more than “response,” Harris said. It’s also about mitigation, prevention, preparedness and recovery. Sammamish doesn’t have a plan incorporating these elements into one preparedness. It has some elements in its city codes. These include ordinances addressing potential landslide hazards, storm water drainage (flooding), etc. But there needs to be a single document and Sammamish doesn’t have one.
  • Federal law requires a Hazard Mitigation Plan. Sammamish doesn’t have one, and it failed to join one established by King County in 2014 that has been joined by other cities.
  • Sammamish needs a Resource Management and Logistics plan to track ownership and use of emergency equipment. There isn’t one. This is an outgrowth of the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans, where FEMA lost track of equipment used in recovery and never got the equipment back.
  • There’s no effective program to communicate with citizens. A “reverse 9-1-1” system has proved inadequate. An active social media system is needed. Bon, the deputy city manager, said she learned about water issues on Mercer Island through Twitter, for example. Issaquah is active on Twitter. Malchow, the council member, has been advocating that Sammamish become active on Facebook and Twitter as communications tools. (Social media was opposed by Communications Manager Tim Larson at the Council retreat in January.)
  • There is no formal staff training program. Managers have been trained in emergency planning and Bon said all staff will be trained, but it’s been absent to now.
  • Sammamish doesn’t have an emergency manager. Officials are talking about perhaps sharing a half-time person with Issaquah. Harris said a full-time manager is needed.
  • There is no Public Information Plan. Having information on the City’s website, as it does now, is inadequate, Harris said.
  • There is no “whole community engagement” committee. This is defined as having representatives of the City, police and fire departments, the schools, the hospitals and others to plan in advance of an emergency. For many cities, the first time this type of engagement happens is during an emergency. This needs to happen in advance, so all parties know each other and know what the coordination is supposed to be before an emergency.

Sammamish City Council Member Christie Malchow calls for immediate action to hire an emergency manager planner.

Malchow and Hornish said at the June 22 Public Safety Committee that Sammamish needs to move now to find and hire a full-time emergency manager. Bon noted that there are already a number of priorities identified by the Council. Malchow replied that none of these matter if there is a major earthquake “tomorrow.”

Hornish also urged immediate action.

Although Harris pointed no fingers during her report, the facts present an indictment of every City Council since 2001 and of former City Manager Ben Yazici for failing to prepare properly for emergencies and complying with federal and state laws for planning.

Mayor Don Gerend has served continuously on the Council since it was formed in 1999. Member Kathy Huckabay is the second-longest serving Council Member, taking a four year break before returning to the Council in January 2014. Tom Odell is now the third-longest serving member, in his seventh year. Ramiro Valderrama just began his second term in January. Bob Keller is in the middle of his first term. Only Hornish and Malchow, elected last November and taking their seats in January, are not responsible for past failures. They aggressively urged action to remedy the shortcomings during the June 22 meeting.

Sammamish wasn’t planning to participate in Cascadia Rising, a major disaster drill, until Sammamish Comment began making inquiries. Within hours, former City Manager Yazici instructed his then-deputy city manager, Lyman Howard, to sign up. Because of the late join, Sammamish’s participation was only at a high level.

After The Comment revealed Sammamish’s intended lack of participation, Yazici dismissed the report as part of the political “silly season.”


4 thoughts on “Sammamish unprepared for disaster, says city consultant

  1. I take away three things from this.

    First, Tim Larson should be given a nudge into retirement. There is no excuse at this point for the city to be inactive on Facebook or Twitter; both of these tools are free and they are critical in emergency situations. The fact that the city still spends money on the city newsletter (which Vance used as propaganda during his 2015 bid for re-election), rather than use free social media as its primary means of communication is asinine. Communication is going to be the primary tool used by the city during an emergency, because honestly there is little they can do in the short term to ameliorate anyway.

    Second, holy cow, there is a ton of bureaucracy involved in emergency planning. State emergency plans, federal hazard mitigation plans, resource management and logistics plans, grant applications, etc. While I agree with you that this should probably be getting done, I don’t know that having these things on pieces of paper is going to make the city any more effective in an emergency. It feels more about keeping bureaucratic paper pushers employed than about actual emergency response.

    Third, this just confirms in my mind that we should be planning to rough it on our own for a long period of time after an earthquake. FEMA suggests the 3-day plan… well I have enough pallets of bottled water and freeze dried Mountain House cans in the basement to last 3 square meals a day for my family for a month. Maybe it is just me, but in reading some of the questions in community Facebook groups like “Sammamish: Ask Anything”, I get the feeling most people aren’t “with it” enough to plan for 2 days let alone an entire month. They expect the city to hand hold them… boy are they in for a surprise.

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