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Amphibious vehicles and infantrymen serving with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Katrina travel down the decimated streets of Orleans Parish conducting search and rescue operations. Some communities in the parish were, at one point, under more than ten feet of water.::r::::n::::r::::n::::r::::n::

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San Francisco Fleet Week serving a preparation for disaster response

19 Aug 2011 | I Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs

There are two things San Franciscans can be sure of.  One… the “big one” will come.  Sooner or later, the ground will shake and it’s not going to be pretty.  Two… when that happens, they can count on their Marines and sailors to be there alongside the rest of the city’s first repsonders.

This year’s Fleet Week, aside from being a vehicle for the city to honor their maritime servicemembers, is also a venue to plan who will do what when the “big one” occurs.  The event brings together planners from the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard together with San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, police and fire departments to think about the one event in San Francisco that’s never too far from anyone’s mind.

“The whole point is to share with the public what we can do – what we will do – in the response to a disaster or an emergency of a large scale in the city,” said Diana Vandenburg, Special Events Planner for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

The city’s first responders, including everyone from police and firefighters to those who will handle emergency communications and distribute water, will join military leaders for a tabletop exercise.  It’s a vital process to ensure that each of the entities who could be in the city when a disaster occurs knows what the other party is doing.

Those entities could include Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, a Marine Air-Ground Task Force that brings with it as many as 10,000 Marines, helicopters, heavy equipment, mobile surgical suites, water purification and shelter for displaced people.  It’s part of the Marines’ unique capability to respond to the full range of military operations, from trucks that can carry tons of equipment to full-up search and rescue capability with the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

“I think we’re ideally suited for crises just because we can do that,” explained Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, the comanding general for 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the force conducting the Marine portion of Fleet Week.  “We have the ability to task organize even to the smallest of levels inside the force and put together the capabilities necessary to get out the door.  We have tremendous logistics capabilities inside the force and those are highlighted in humanitarian assistance situations.”

Spiese added that the same capabilities Marines are relying on right now to fight in Afghanistan – the ability to move fuel, water and first-rate medical care able to respond to trauma cases – are exactly what makes Marines an ideal force to respond to victims of an earthquake.

Jill Raycroft is San Francisco’s exercise planner for the Department of Emergency Services.  She’s coordinating the city and county’s portion of ensuring that those who could be working in the rubble of a post-earthquake city are prepared.  The time spent working alongside the military forces is priceless, she said.

“We always say in the emergency management field you don’t want to change business cards at the earthquake,” Raycroft explained.  “You want to have these existing relationships.  We want to see what our gaps are and how the DoD and the Coast Guard can come in and again, help augment that.”

The issue of disaster preparedness is unique to San Francisco.  Other regions of the nation have their own concerns.  Residents of the Midwest know they’ll contend with tornadoes.  Americans on the East Coast keep their eye on the horizon for hurricanes.  But hurricanes give you a little warning.  And tornadoes might come.  They might not.

San Franciscans know the earthquake is coming.  There’s no doubt.  It’s just a matter of when and how bad.

“The reality of living in San Francisco, and being a native San Franciscan, we come to be comfortable with the fact that there will be an earthquake,” Vandenburg said.  “We don’t have the privilege of being warned of one, as in hurricane territory, where you have this warning period where you can get prepared and you can leave.  It’s going to be a sudden, immediate event.  And so for us, we already choose to live here.  We choose to accept that and we choose to be prepared for it.”

That means doing everything they can.  That starts with the local neighborhoods and civic organizations.  Vandenburg said city and county officials urge residents to be ready for as many as 72, even 96 hours before help might arrive.  That means having enough food, enough medication, enough fuel and water. 

But the Department of Emergency Management also wants residents to know that help is on the way when an earthquake does strike.  Police, firefighters, search and rescue crews will be pouring out across the city in droves.  And they can also count on their Marines and sailors to be right there alongside them.

 “We can do a lot within the first 72 hours for the citizens and the residents of San Francisco,” Raycroft added.  “But yes, we could always use more help.  If we coordinate that help prior to the actual event, I think if the event does occur, we’ll be in much better footing.”