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Preparing for the big one: how long will necessities last?

Editors note: This is the second of a series on emergency preparedness in the Willits area.

Willits' water system won't work without electricity, backup generators won't work without gas, and local stores have a one-week food supply.

What happens if a disaster closes down the highway and knocks out the local power grid?

We have a generator to bring water from the reservoir to the (purification) plant and to operate the plant, says Denny Caine, supervisor of the citys water department, plus a couple of days worth of fuel.

Electrical engineer Brian Corzelius, who has been documenting the citys electrical usage, says the three pumps moving water from the reservoir use 75 KW (kilowatts) of energy each. Two are used on a daily basis and the third as needed.

Thats 225 KW just to drive the water, not to mention the facilities themselves, Corzelius said.

The plant's gas-powered generator produces 400 KW of energy.

If the gas at the water plant runs out and a local or state emergency has been proclaimed the city manager (in the role of director of emergency services) has the authority to purchase or, if necessary, commandeer more, according to the Emergency Services chapter of the city code.

Local gas supplies, however, might also be needed to power emergency vehicles, fuel private vehicles needed for evacuation, and support other responsive actions.

Corzelius, a member of the city's ad hoc committee exploring alternate energy systems for operations and buildings, recommends a solar backup at the water plant that produces at least 90 KW of power. Even with limited winter sunlight, he says, it would run one of the pumps. Purchase costs could be covered by a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grant if there is a strong connection to disaster preparedness.

Then we could keep those tanks filled, Corzelius says. Without that when the tanks are out, were out.

When the tanks are full, Caine adds, water will flow downhill to most Willits residences without the need for pumping. The holding capacity, however, is limited to about three million gallons.

When it gets down to half the hospital is out (of water). Some days in the summer the town uses two million gallons a day.

How long the water lasts, then, depends on how its used. Caine says high levels of summer usage are related to watering lawns and gardens. The best move in a disaster would be to limit water usage to drinking and cooking.

Would the public comply with such restrictions?

If a state of emergency relating to the water supply is declared, the health department and Office of Emergency Services would be called in and tell everyone they have to limit water use, says Undersheriff Gary Hudson. Law enforcement personnel, he adds, would be empowered to ensure compliance.

Regarding the hospital's water supply, Little Lake Fire Chief Jeff Smith, says the fire districts full, 4,000-gallon tender is certified clean enough to hold drinkable water and could replenish the hospitals capacity:

After that we haul (drinking) water from Ukiah if the roads are working. If not, we boil water from lakes and creeks and springs.

How will the department fight fires if its water supply goes to the hospital?

Smith says the fire district's engine and most private water trucks, which could be made available during a state of emergency, could draft (water) from streams or lakes or swimming pools. So could the fire engines, which (each) carry 750 to 800 gallons of water.

What about fuel for the trucks and engines?

There's enough gas in the area to run emergency equipment for a couple of weeks, Smith says, adding the declaration of an emergency could give response vehicles first rights to the fuel.

What happens after that?

The pumps on the trucks won't run without diesel fuel, Smith says. If were out of gas we use bucket brigades.

Smith says the fire department has considered switching to biofuel, a mix thats primarily vegetable oil, plus some diesel fuel and a catalyst. A limiting factor, he says, is that the warranty on newer vehicles is voided if biofuel is used.

Those developing the new hospital are including the end of affordable petroleum products among the emergencies to prepare for.

We're trying to make the new hospital green, the least reliant on fossil fuels we can says hospital emergency coordinator Brenda Simi.

Even if water, fire fighting capacity, and medical care remain available, however, the community won't last long without a reliable food supply. If the highway closes or transportation fuel is unavailable, local groceries will run out of food in about a week, according to Dr. Jason Bradford, founder of the Willits Economic LocaLization group.

Emergency service providers urge residents to store a supply of non-perishable food. Bradford suggests the hospital and city do the same to assist the unprepared. For the long term, Bradford recommends establishing community farms and gardens and adjusting development policies to relate population increases to the local food supply.

Local resident Ed Burton, who recalls the long-lasting shortages of World War II, lamented local land use practices:

You can raise pot in Mendocino County, but if you raise a family cow a whole bunch of agencies will descend on you.

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