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San Jose Looks to Residents, North Bay Fires for Flood Preparation

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Ray Riordan, San Jose's director of emergency management, with a survey on emergency notifications. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

As the city of San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley Water District prepare for winter storms, they are garnering feedback from residents on their preferred form of emergency contact, as well as hoping to apply lessons learned from the response to the North Bay fires.

Officials from the city and the district are hoping that winter rains won't bring with them a repeat of February's disaster in Coyote Creek, when flooding led to 40,000 evacuations and $100 million in property damage.

Local government was criticized at the time for not having a universal alert system in place to notify residents.

On Saturday, the city held the last of three resource fairs, where residents were encouraged to sign up for emergency alerts, take a tutorial in preparing sandbags and hear about the Joint Emergency Action Plan being developed to prepare for the winter storms.

Residents were also asked to vote their preference on different ways the city could contact them in an emergency.

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“It’s one thing for us to write a plan that we think is effective," said Ray Riordan, San Jose's director of emergency management. "It’s also important for us to get the feedback from the public and how they think it would be more effective for them to get communications and notifications.”

Riordan said over the course of the three meetings, residents have overwhelmingly favored two modes of communication: a Wireless Emergency Alert sent to a cellphone and a loud announcement from a powerful speaker driven through the streets.

Unlike other alert systems, Wireless Emergency Alerts do not require users to sign up. Instead they are sent to cellphones in a certain area, like an Amber Alert.

“A lot of people don’t like to give their information out, which we respect and understand," Riordan said. "The WEA alert system goes out using local cell systems."

After large wildfires broke out in Sonoma County this month, officials faced questions over why the WEA alerts were not deployed. Napa County was not participating in the WEA program.

Outside of Saturday's resource fair at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown San Jose, a slightly less high-tech form of emergency communication was on display.

An outdoor emergency speaker on display in downtown San Jose. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

A large speaker was hoisted on top of a trailer and hooked onto the back of an SUV.

“Sort of your basic, old-school loudspeaker getting out information," is how Councilman Raul Peralez described it. "We have the ability to program it in multiple different languages, which we’re going to do."

San Jose resident India Meisner liked the idea of the WEA alert, but also said that a loudspeaker could be the best way to get in touch with her senior neighbors, who may not have cellphones.

"It would be so annoying and so loud that you’d have no choice but to evacuate," she said. "So it would encourage reluctant people to evacuate."

The speaker system arrived in San Jose only a couple of weeks ago, but it already went for a successful test run in Santa Rosa, where Ray Riordan brought it to broadcast public health information for residents returning to the Coffey Park neighborhood.

“They were able to hear a message on a regular basis about what they needed to be careful of as they return home," he said. "We can use this system for alert notifications ahead of time."

San Jose officials said they will use all available forms of communication should a flood or other disaster arise. They also urged residents to prepare their own disaster plans and personal kits, noting the risk of future disasters like more floods, fires or an earthquake.

"Being better prepared individually is really one of the best things that we can do," Peralez said.

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