After the Big One

Rod Searcey

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake, with its epicenter in Los Altos, had struck three days earlier. The casualties were extensive on campus: 424 significant injuries, 120 hospitalizations and unconfirmed reports of 13 deaths. The Varian Labs were on fire, there was a gas leak in Escondido Village, and one of the reservoirs that holds a five-day supply of potable water had collapsed in the Foothills, flooding the west side of campus. Reports of looting could not be confirmed.

Some 300 senior administrators and staff were cloistered in the Emergency Operations Center, aka the Gold Lounge of the Faculty Club, grappling with 2006’s disaster drill. They were divided into a handful of teams with specific assignments. Those in the bright pink safety vests of the internal communications team ferried handwritten messages from one busy table to another. Workers in the yellow reflective vests of the logistics and finance team addressed administrative questions. And the professionally dressed administrators in the policy group, headed by University President John Hennessy, made the big decisions. Could the payroll be met? Yes, indeed.

Unlike many past hypotheticals, which focused on the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the University’s ninth annual emergency preparedness exercise focused on the mid-term response, three days after the earthquake shook the region. Life-saving issues had already been addressed, so the April 6 exercise was all about getting back to business: reopening classrooms and tracking utility outages and haz-mat spills.

Only 133 of 182 classrooms were available, and five of 11 operating generators needed to be shut down to conserve fuel supplies. Authorities also were looking for temporary morgues, and the mayor of Palo Alto—in the person of a staffer seated at a telephone in the Maples Pavilion press box—was calling to offer help. In an unexpected turn of events, several participants were delayed, for real, by a Caltrain slowdown. Larry Gibbs, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety, took it in stride: “Disasters don’t wait for key people to be on campus.”

Extensive damage caused by a 1994 earthquake at Cal State-Northridge has elevated concern about natural disasters on campuses, Gibbs says. Six years ago, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials realized how much money was invested in the nation’s research universities and began pumping funds into a Disaster-Resistant University Program. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, universities are increasing their emergency-preparedness funds, and many are dialing the Farm for advice—largely because Stanford has been addressing disaster questions in detail since 1998. The University shares its programs online, and has designed an emergency website that is hosted at Duke University—in case the Farm goes dark during a natural disaster.

In a wrap-up press conference with role-playing reporters, Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, pronounced the campus situation “stabilized.” Chemistry professor John Brauman, a first-time participant who sat in the policy group, declared his four hours on the imagined front lines a “good education.” Said registrar Roger Printup from his post in operations planning: “We’re in better shape than we’d thought.”