SANTA ROSA —Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin lodged a scathing and emotional critique Tuesday about the county’s long-criticized failure to send more widespread public emergency alerts when the devastating October wildfires ignited suddenly four months ago.
Gorin’s voice trembled from the outset during her first public response to a recent state report that said the county’s initial notifications were uncoordinated and the failure of local officials to push out mass cellphone alerts was based on an outdated understanding of their technological abilities.
“All my life, I placed my faith in the professionals — you guys rock,” Gorin said after hearing a presentation from a top county emergency official. “And to tell you that I am horribly disappointed is an understatement.”
Gorin, who lost her own Oakmont home in the fires, noted that she didn’t see anything in the state report about how alerts were deployed in the Sonoma Valley, which she represents. She said she’d heard deeply troubling “horror stories” about the harrowing evacuations of friends and constituents for the past four months.
“My heart bleeds every time,” Gorin said as she began weeping. “Not one person received an alert. What the hell are we doing here?”
The exchange marked perhaps the strongest and most personal rebuke from a county politician regarding the emergency alert process officials used four months ago to warn the public about the fast-moving wildfires that destroyed some 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in the area.
Having decided about a year before the wildfires not to use Amber Alert-style messages during local disasters, county officials instead relied heavily on warning systems that require people to sign up in advance. The county’s recently reassigned emergency manager has said he wasn’t sure the Wireless Emergency Alert system could be targeted to areas more specific than the entire county, but the state Office of Emergency Services said in its report released Monday that the county failed to keep up with technological advancements in the platform.
Supervisors also used Tuesday’s meeting to signal their displeasure in other aspects of the county’s emergency response.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who’s serving her third term on the board and was its chairwoman last year, said staff members have traditionally viewed supervisors as “a nuisance” within the county’s emergency operations center. Board members should be more involved in the disaster response, given their responsibility to engage with the public.
“We’re the ones that have to stand before people,” Zane said. “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am that I’ve had to push against this door for so long and here we are. That needs to change radically.”
Similarly, Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman, called for changes in the way the county runs its emergency operations center, describing it as having an ineffective “bunker mentality.”
“It needs to be blown up and fixed,” Rabbitt said of the county’s emergency response system.