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California Is Not Adequately Prepared to Protect Its Most Vulnerable Residents From Natural Disasters


Report Number: 2019-103

December 5, 2019

The Governor of California
President pro Tempore of the Senate
Speaker of the Assembly
State Capitol
Sacramento, California 95814

Dear Governor and Legislative Leaders:

As directed by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, my office conducted an audit of three counties—Butte, Sonoma, and Ventura—to assess how well prepared each county is to protect vulnerable populations before, during, and after a natural disaster. During a natural disaster, some people have needs—known as access and functional needs—that cannot be met by traditional emergency response and recovery methods. These access and functional needs come from a variety of circumstances, such as disabilities, limited English proficiency, transportation disadvantages, and older age. Although everyone is vulnerable during a natural disaster, people with access and functional needs are even more vulnerable. This report concludes that, despite guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), these three counties have not adequately implemented best practices for protecting vulnerable populations, which may place their residents at greater risk of harm during future natural disasters.

Before some of California's most recent and significant wildfires, none of the three counties we reviewed had complete, up-to-date plans for alerting and warning their residents about danger from natural disasters, conducting evacuations, or sheltering evacuees. Further, none of the counties had conducted assessments of their respective populations to determine what access and functional needs existed in their communities, prearranged for evacuation assistance to meet those needs, or fully prepared to send critical warning messages. Inadequate preparation likely hindered the counties' responses to the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires, and the 2017 Thomas Fire. For example, despite the critical nature of evacuation messages, none of the counties sent evacuation notices in languages other than English during these events. In the time since these wildfires, each county has taken some steps to follow best practices for meeting access and functional needs, but none have fully implemented these practices.

Despite the importance of planning for people with access and functional needs, Cal OES has not provided adequate support to local jurisdictions in developing emergency plans to meet those needs. It has neither complied with key state laws requiring it to provide guidance to local jurisdictions, nor has it published lessons learned from natural disasters so that local jurisdictions can learn from others' successes and challenges in responding to emergencies. These failures leave local jurisdictions without key resources that could help them develop plans to protect people with access and functional needs during future natural disasters.

It is important that readers understand the scope of this report. We did not evaluate or reach conclusions about fault or liability, nor did we review specific claims or assess whether the State or any of the three counties we visited breached any legal duty of care. We focused our review on the implementation of best practices prior to emergency events. By implementing best practices in their current planning efforts, counties can be better prepared for future disasters, and in particular, the specific concerns of those with access and functional needs.

Respectfully submitted,

California State Auditor