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


Report Number: 2019-103



California is susceptible to a variety of natural disasters, the most prevalent and destructive of which are earthquakes, floods, and wildfires. In recent years, California has experienced an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires, and experts project that these events will continue to occur more frequently. Consequently, the State will likely need to protect its residents more often and from more dangerous natural disasters in the future than it has in the past.

California's emergency response system, which is known as the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), mirrors the federal government's National Incident Management System (NIMS). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manages the federal system, which is the nation's comprehensive approach to emergency management and applies to all levels of government, including cities, counties, and states. Under the State's emergency management system, local governments—which include cities, counties, and special districts—are primarily responsible for emergency response. As Figure 1 demonstrates, when a natural disaster exceeds a local government's capacity to manage it, the local government may request assistance from the next level up in the emergency management system.

Figure 1
As Resource Needs Increase, Higher Levels of Government Become Involved in Emergency Management

A structural chart showing that higher levels of government get involved in an emergency response as resource needs increase.

Source: State law, state emergency management system guidelines, and the state emergency plan.

Individuals Can Have Access and
Functional Needs Due to:

  • Developmental or intellectual disabilities
  • Physical disabilities
  • Chronic conditions
  • Injuries
  • Limited or no English proficiency
  • Age, including older adults and children
  • Living in institutionalized settings
  • Low income
  • Homelessness
  • Transportation disadvantages, including dependency on public transportation
  • Pregnancy

Source: State law.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is responsible for the State's emergency and disaster response services, including activities necessary to respond to and recover from natural disasters and other emergencies. One of Cal OES's critical duties is to develop and maintain the State's emergency plan (state plan). The state plan describes how the State will perform a variety of emergency support functions (emergency functions) and identifies the emergency functions for which specific state agencies, including Cal OES, are responsible. For example, Cal OES is the lead agency responsible for coordinating resources to support local jurisdictions before, during, and after emergencies, such as through locating and delivering emergency response supplies and equipment; distributing federal emergency management funding; and coordinating the State's efforts related to emergency communications, fire response and rescue, and long‑term recovery. Other state agencies have roles in disaster response as well: for instance, the California Health and Human Services Agency is responsible for coordinating actions to assist responsible jurisdictions in meeting the needs of evacuees displaced during disasters. These needs may relate to food assistance, sheltering, and recovery.

Natural Disasters and Individuals With Access and Functional Needs

When a natural disaster occurs, some people may have needs that cannot be met by traditional emergency response and recovery methods. The emergency management community refers to those needs as access and functional needs. As the text box describes, people may have access and functional needs for a variety of reasons. Emergencies have different effects on people with different types of needs. Figure 2 provides examples of the types of access and functional needs that individuals may have during an emergency.

Figure 2
Individuals With Access and Functional Needs May Require a Variety of Services in Natural Disaster Situations

A list of some types of access and functional needs and the variety of services that people with these needs might require during natural disasters.

Source: FEMA, Cal OES, and nongovernmental organization guidance on emergency planning.

Although everyone is vulnerable during a natural disaster, people with access and functional needs are more vulnerable than others because of those needs. Past events have shown that these individuals are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. The United Nations reports that people with certain access and functional needs are two to four times more likely to die as a result of a natural disaster. Such people can represent a substantial portion of the population. Consequently, ensuring that emergency plans contain strategies for protecting and assisting these vulnerable populations is critical. However, as Figure 3 shows, emergency response agencies have historically struggled to adequately assist people with access and functional needs during natural disasters. Of particular note in these disasters are three key areas of emergency response and recovery in which their needs were not always met: alerting and warning, evacuating, and sheltering.

Figure 3
For Many Years, Emergency Response Agencies Have Struggled to Assist People With Access and Functional Needs

A timeline that shows a variety of disaster events between 1989 and 2017 where emergency response agencies have struggled to meet access and functional needs in the areas of emergency information, evacuation assistance, and emergency shelters.

Source: After-action reports published by city, county, and state governments, and external reviews of disaster response and recovery by FEMA, the Government Accountability Office, the California State Independent Living Council, and the National Council on Disability.

Struggles to meet individuals' access and functional needs received national attention following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. One of the most destructive natural disasters in American history, Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have caused more than 1,800 fatalities. A report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina stated that 71 percent of the fatalities in Louisiana—where the majority of the fatalities occurred—were people over the age of 60. Further, the National Council on Disability—an independent federal agency charged with advising the federal government on policies and programs that affect people with disabilities—reported that a disproportionate number of the people who died had disabilities. Reviews of the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina revealed significant gaps in agencies' preparedness to protect people and, in some cases, specifically people with access and functional needs. For example, some people who were deaf were unable to understand important emergency information.

In response to gaps in emergency preparedness and response, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Reform Act). The Reform Act contained provisions for improving planning to meet access and functional needs. Among other things, the Reform Act required various federal departments—including FEMA and the Federal Highway Administration—to develop guidelines for emergency management that include consideration of individuals with disabilities. Although the Reform Act directs many of its requirements at federal departments, it also requires states that receive federal funding for preparedness assistance to annually report to FEMA on their level of overall preparedness, including an assessment of the state's compliance with NIMS. This assessment includes, for example, the percentage of local jurisdictions that have adopted NIMS, whether the state has implemented a NIMS training program, and what actions the state has taken to support inventorying emergency response resources.

California's Efforts to Meet Access and Functional Needs

Following Hurricane Katrina, California also made changes to improve its emergency response for people with access and functional needs. In 2008 Cal OES established its Office of Access and Functional Needs, which, as of July 2019, had five full-time staff positions and is led by the chief of that office. According to the state plan, the purpose of that office is to identify the access and functional needs individuals may have before, during, and after disasters and to integrate disability needs and resources into the State's emergency management systems. Since its inception, the office has published guidance documents and developed a training course on how local jurisdictions should integrate those needs into emergency planning.

More recently, in August 2019, Cal OES and California Volunteers—the state office that manages programs and initiatives aimed at increasing the number of Californians engaged in service and volunteering—awarded $50 million in local disaster resilience grants and announced the official launch of the State's new emergency preparedness campaign, known as Listos California (which translates to "Ready California"). According to the award announcement, Cal OES awarded $19 million to community-based organizations that will organize vulnerable and underserved communities in establishing preparedness strategies that reflect their access and functional needs. According to the Governor's related press release, the purpose of these efforts is to build resiliency in vulnerable communities that are at high risk for wildfires and other disasters. The community‑based organizations receiving this money are required to report their progress to Cal OES each quarter until January 2021. Cal OES and California Volunteers awarded the remaining $31 million for purposes such as funding citizen emergency response teams that assist their neighbors before and during disasters, and building a statewide preparedness campaign that is linguistically and culturally appropriate.

Recent Natural Disasters in the Three Counties We Reviewed

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committee) requested that we review three counties' emergency plans to determine the extent to which those plans follow federal and state law as well as best practices in meeting individuals' access and functional needs during natural disasters. We selected three counties that had experienced recent and significant natural disasters: Butte County (Butte), Sonoma County (Sonoma), and Ventura County (Ventura). Each of these counties has had multiple natural disasters in the last five years, including wildfires and severe winter storms. In our review, we focused on recent wildfires that were devastating and unprecedented: the November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte; the October 2017 Sonoma Complex Fires in Sonoma, which included the Tubbs Fire and the Nuns Fire; and the December 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura. As Table 1 shows, these fires were among the most deadly and destructive in California history. At the times that the Tubbs Fire and Thomas Fire occurred, they were ranked as the most destructive and largest wildfires, respectively, in the history of the State. The Camp, Sonoma Complex, and Thomas Fires all spread rapidly, with strong winds driving each fire's progression. Although thousands of firefighters responded, the size and speed of the fires strained the firefighters' ability to quickly contain them.

Table 1
Butte, Sonoma, and Ventura Recently Experienced Three of the Most Destructive and Deadly Wildfires in California's History
Historical Rank
Name County Date Most
Camp Butte November 2018
Tubbs* Sonoma October 2017
Nuns* Sonoma October 2017
Thomas Ventura December 2017

Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports.
* These fires were two of the largest among a group of fires that are collectively known as the Sonoma Complex Fires.
These fires do not rank among the 10 deadliest wildfires.

The Audit Committee asked us to determine the number of casualties that resulted from natural disasters in the last five years. As Table 2 shows, the majority of these fatalities involved older individuals. As of the date of this report, the three counties were in different stages of recovery. Sonoma and Ventura have turned to rebuilding. As of October 2019, Butte still had two shelters operating at campground facilities that were housing evacuees from the Camp Fire who were waiting to transition to more permanent housing arrangements.

Table 2
The Majority of Natural Disaster Fatalities in the Last Five Years in the Three Counties Were Older Adults
County Fatalities Fatalities 65 years of age or older Fatalities Where the Coroner Records Noted a Potential Access or Functional Need*

Source: Analysis of death investigation reports and autopsy records the Sonoma County Sheriff Coroner's Office, the Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office, and the Butte County Sheriff Coroner's Office provided for individuals who died as a result of natural disasters.

Note: At Butte and Sonoma, all of the fatalities occurred as a result of the Camp and Sonoma Complex Fires. In Ventura, the fatalities occurred as a result of the Thomas Fire and the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

* Our ability to determine the number of fatalities with access and functional needs was limited by what was stated in the reports provided by each county. As such, we have no way to determine whether these numbers represent the total number of fatalities of people with access and functional needs.

As of October 2019, one of the fatalities in Butte County remained unidentified. Although we included that person in the total fatalities, we were unable to determine the decedent's age or possible access and functional needs.

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