Most of us have been glued to the television or plugged into news radio since the weekend, watching the epic disaster in south Texas.
Hurricane Harvey, now Tropical Storm Harvey, ripped into the coastline at Corpus Christi and literally blew away whole neighborhoods. But what we're watching now — and likely will be watching for weeks to come — is the astronomical amount of rain Harvey is dumping on the Houston area.
How people cope with disaster deservedly draws our attention. More often than not, truly inspiring stories of neighbor helping neighbor, of professionals going beyond the call of duty are the stories that stand out.
Then there's the scrutiny governments face. On every level — city to state to national — disaster agencies will attempt to do the job they were created for, and every administrator knows they will be judged by how well that job is done.
We all recall the 2005 disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, and the havoc wreaked on New Orleans. Most of us also will recall the nearly equal disaster that was preparation of the New Orleans dikes, and the less than sterling response by the city of New Orleans all the way up to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). People lost their jobs over that one. Throughout the southeast, 1,245 people lost their lives.
Sobering numbers, and sobering situations. It's enough to keep Reggie Harrison up at night.
Harrison is the director of Long Beach's Department of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications. He's in charge of getting the city ready to respond to one emergency or another, and a couple of years ago took on the police and fire dispatchers at the Emergency Communications Center as well.
Last time I checked, a hurricane the force of Harvey or Katrina has never struck Long Beach. But there has been significant flooding along the coastline, and plenty of experts say the chances of that happening more frequently and more seriously are increasing, thanks to sea level rise and global warming.
It will take an act of God for Long Beach to see rainfall in the Biblical proportions being seen this week in Houston. But you can bet that Harrison and his crew are conducting "what if" sessions, likely as we speak.
Living in California, our disaster special always will be earthquakes. Long Beach survived one big quake some 85 years ago. Specialists who have offices next to the weather disaster experts mentioned above continue to say that every year that passes without a "really big one" only means that big one is more likely.
Then there are the manmade disasters. The lengthy power outages downtown in the summer of 2015 still are the subjects of government hearings, legal wrangling over damage payments and plenty of "were you there?" conversations. Harrison and crew have spent plenty of time trying to figure out how they could have improved the response the city had to that one.
One major program has resulted, at least partially, from those conversations. It's called Alert Long Beach. It is a notification system that allows the city to automatically send disaster alert messages to everyone signed up for the service in just minutes.
Yes, the city did have a reverse 911 system when the power went out — it just didn't work. Efforts to put news out via social media were more successful, but barely so.
That's why Harrison pitches Alert Long Beach every chance he gets. Tests have proven the system works. The big drawback, though, is that people have to sign up to receive the notices.
It's simple. Just go to longbeach.gov/disasterpreparedness/ and click on the Alert Long Beach logo. You'll be asked for the phone number where you want to receive emergency notices. It's not intrusive (I know, because I've signed up), and it's free.
Alert Long Beach isn't a panacea, and Harrison's team has plenty of other emergency response protocols in place. So do the Police and Fire departments (look into the CERT, Community Emergency Response Team, training the Fire Department offers).
The Red Cross has a strong chapter in Long Beach, too, and the city through Harrison coordinates with them.
The Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications fiscal 2018 budget is about $12.5 million, and what the department does is worth every penny. Check them out, and sign up for Alert Long Beach.