Atherton: Adapting for disaster


On a sunny afternoon at an outdoor cafe, disasters are far from the minds of most people -- but Peter Carpenter and Scott Barnum aren't most people. Discussions of earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina, and camp toilets only whet their appetites.

The problem is how to make disaster appealing to everyone else. ADAPT, a 501(c)3 nonprofit group of Atherton volunteers dedicated for the past eight years to teaching people how to help themselves and others when disaster strikes, only has about 30 active members. "It's very frustrating that the level of interest is so low," Mr. Carpenter said. "It's hard work to organize neighborhoods because people don't think it's a problem."

Atherton presents a particular challenge for ADAPT since there's no town center and the first responders -- the firefighters and police -- generally live outside town, according to Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Barnum.

There are also geographic peculiarities, such as the neighborhood located along Walsh Road, with one way in and one way out. Heavy vegetation makes the area ripe for a fire during the dry summers. There's an evacuation route that follows a horse trail to Interstate 280, and another that hops a fence to a golf course. But given how mobile today's society is, the ADAPT members wonder how many people now living in that area remember the plan.

The City Council used to have a disaster committee, until disinterest and lack of resources killed it, they said. The general affluence of the area also contributes, leading some to believe that enough money will buy solutions even in the face of earthquakes. Wealth isn't always an obstacle, though. Mr. Carpenter estimates the town probably has more ham radio operations per capita than anywhere else. "Boys and their toys, and deep pockets," he said. Both he and Mr. Barnum practice talking over the network every month.

Ideally, what ADAPT looks like from their perspective is this: A system of 16 neighborhoods, each with a coordinator that oversees the block captains, who are supported by other volunteers. All neighborhoods would be able to plug into the ham radio network; currently, only six of the 16 can. ADAPT also needs at least eight more coordinators to fill out the network.

The government's rule of thumb is to plan on surviving without outside assistance for 72 hours. ADAPT thinks 96 hours is more realistic.

Mr. Carpenter shared one of his many experiences as a first responder to illustrate the need to expect the unexpected. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he said, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District thought its response team was ready for anything, armed with cell phones, satellite phones, and high-limit credit cards.

"First message we got back was 'nothing works," he recalled. "The cell phones were down, no one could take credit cards. We had to put someone on a private plane with a bag of cash. The team came back looking like refugees after 16 days there without resupplying."

As ADAPT fights to create a solid framework for survival within its own boundaries, some residents may look to civic leaders for guidance. The group wants to create a disaster preparedness section on the town's website and also get funding for putting a cache of emergency equipment, such as pumps and lights, in each neighborhood. While Interim City Manager John Danielson has been very receptive, according to Mr. Barnum, it's a struggle to keep the interest of the council.

"My sense is that someone gets on the council, and they feel like they're paying their dues," Mr. Carpenter said. "I disagree with that, being on the fire district board. It doesn't relieve me of my responsibility to help."

Two of the five council members polled by the Almanac seem actively engaged in disaster planning. Vice Mayor Bill Widmer said he meets regularly with ADAPT members, while Councilman Jerry Carlson responded that both he and his wife completed the community emergency response training (CERT) offered through the fire district.

Another CERT training will be held in September, and ADAPT plans to host a pancake breakfast fundraiser in October. The group meets on the first Saturday of each month at 9 a.m. in Atherton council chambers at 91 Ashfield Road.

Contact Scott Barnum at for more information.

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Like this comment
Posted by Caroline Beverstock
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Aug 28, 2011 at 10:22 pm

I'm glad to hear there is a group still thinking about these important issues. Some years ago, I joined in with fine folks to try to organize Walsh Road. I've thought a good deal about why so few people come forward to plan for our area in the event of a catastrophe that leaves us on our own when the "first responders" may not be in town (stuck out in the valley at their homes) and the few on duty are responding to other areas. Denial is probably one important factor--ask people standing in line with you if they are ready for an earthquake. You won't find many yeses. Another factor may well be fear about coming out from behind the fences and gates. I suppose a few have helicopters ready for evacuation, but I don't know where people live who would need assistance for evacuation if their people were caught not at home by an EQ. I will respond as a CERT-trained person to the four homes of people who have worked to be prepared. Good fortune to the ADAPT group.

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