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Finding out that your home is still standing means the world when you're an evacuee.

The phone rang and we heard a recorded voice telling us to leave home immediately, and bring only what we could carry. It was the dreaded call that hundreds of thousands of families like ours have gotten since the mass evacuations of San Diego County began on Sunday.

So we loaded up our “family”  – a combination of children, dogs, cats, horses, and a lone rabbit -- and made our way to a nearby horse ranch that lies just outside the immediate evacuation area. Here we sit, breathing the fumes of the fires and the stables, wondering about everything we left behind.

That wondering, as it turns out, is worst thing about being an evacuee. Ironically, the one item that has brought the most solace to the families gathered here has turned out to be a little gadget about the size of a pack of gum: Novatel's cellular USB data modem, sold by Verizon Wireless as the USB720 NationalAccess Broadband device.

Even with the radio and TV broadcasts we can receive, we were soon frustrated by the lack of specific information on our plight. Local stations focus only on the biggest fires ravaging our area, and have no time or personnel to report on our tiny blaze, which has consumed only 7,500 acres, 200 homes, and evacuated a mere city of 40,000. Public agencies are too busy fighting fires and saving lives to update their telephone information lines. While our community newspaper publisher has valiantly updated her lead story every few hours, it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the refugees, each one hungry for details on whether their own homes and loved ones have survived the ordeal.

In the end, we have relied on three main sources of information: two are online, and one is decidedly low-tech:

1.    The California Highway Patrol’s real-time incident log (http://cad.chp.ca.gov).
The log is designed for CHP officers logging on from their cruisers, reporting their activities in the field. The information is full of police jargon and traffic-related minutiae, but occasionally it contains references to where the fire is erupting or being extinguished. Because the data is all recorded in real-time by first responders, it’s a godsend to information-starved evacuees.

2.    Impromptu user forums in the comments sections of articles published by our local “rag,” the North County Times (www.nctimes.com).
The articles themselves were nominally valuable, but readers interacting spontaneously in the comments sections were priceless. For example, I came across a post last night where a woman mentioned that her elderly mother had just broken the evacuation order and returned home. I recognized the lady in question as my next-door neighbor, and the post confirmed that my home was also still intact.

3.    A 10-year-old fax machine.
About as low-tech as you can get, the fax machine sits in my home office. Every so often I call it from my cell phone, just to reassure myself that the house is still there. As long as the machine picks up and screeches back at me, I know we still have a home to return to.


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CD and HAM radio
By kyleb2112 on 10/26/2007 7:12:28 AM , Rating: 3
We were mandatory evacuated by reverse 911 calls 3 times in 2 days as the fires kept spreading. The best source of information for us were the CB and HAM radio operators set up at the two churches we stayed at. These guys were tapped into emergency channels and were giving minute-by-minute updates. When we found out our house survived it was through the HAM and CB radio guys. Score one for 80 year-old tech.

I'm starting to hear a political blame game, but if anything people should be fighting for the credit of how well this has been going--and it is still going. The performance of reverse 911 system, good conditions and upbeat mood at the evac centers, dependable cell phones, general lack of panic and a low death toll--these are all something to be proud of. This has been the largest evacuation in California's history, but there have been heat waves that killed more people. There's a lot to be learned here that will save lives in future disasters, but that won't happen if it's allowed to be written off as a huge failure to score political points.




RE: CD and HAM radio
By jskirwin on 10/26/2007 9:19:52 AM , Rating: 2
Congrats on the house, and hat tip to the geezers with radios.

Pulled this from an AP story posted at FoxNews:
quote:

The Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters were grounded for a day partly because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry "fire spotters" who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the high winds made it too dangerous to fly.


Is this an example of red-tape or sensible regulation? What if the planes had gone up without spotters and were dumping water and retardant where it wasn't needed?

It's good to do to a post-mortem on any project - or disaster, but there's a lot to be proud of. San Diegans handled themselves well, and the government responded quickly and effectively. Hopefully we can apply what we learn from this disaster and use it elsewhere in the country.


RE: CD and HAM radio
By CascadingDarkness on 10/26/2007 2:08:40 PM , Rating: 2
If I was in one of those services I'd be hard pressed not to issue some orders for choppers to go up in an "unrelated firefighting training sortie". Sure, likely this might be followed by a court marshal even if there were no direct orders to be grounded. I'm not one to follow procedures when bad things can happen if you just sit on your thumbs waiting for red tape to be sorted out.

I suppose that's why I'm not in military, and often raise Data Security's ire. Some things are more important than following the rules.


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