Op-ed: Utility undergrounding must be considered in disaster planning

I read Patricia Mapp’s Oct. 27 and Isabelle Gaston’s Oct. 26 Opinionater articles suggesting that utility undergrounding is not an important priority when considering public safety and disaster preparedness.

I totally disagree.

I have first-hand experience when it comes to utility undergrounding, emergency preparedness and public safety. I am a former public works director in Oakland, managing first-line emergency response in both the 1989 earthquake and the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley fire.

I was behind the fire lines in Oakland in 1991. There were downed utility poles and live wires strewn all over the streets posing grave threats to evacuation and to our police, fire and public works personnel that were either fighting the fire or providing emergency search and rescue operations. These downed lines hindered and prevented efforts that could save lives.

A major earthquake can produce the same results with downed utility lines blocking evacuation paths and restricting public safety personnel from safe access into areas where medical attention is needed.
Therefore, I believe Ms. Mapps and Ms. Gaston are uninformed or naive to suggest that undergrounding of utility wires should not be part of a public safety and disaster plan. Utility undergrounding is only one piece of the public safety pie, but in my view, it is very important to explore as a possibility for Berkeley. Yes, it is expensive, but the benefit can outweigh the cost over time.

I understand that both writers are members of the Northeast Berkeley Association (NEBA) which is supporting Ms. Gaston for City Council, but perhaps they should keep an open mind while an in-depth study and community process, now underway and spearheaded by councilwoman Susan Wengraf, is completed. The second phase of a multi-phase study involves professionals, various commissions and knowledgeable others that will evaluate: cost/benefit; social and equity issues, and future technology trends affecting undergrounding. Once these more technical issues are better understood, community members will have multiple opportunities to express their opinions on the importance and value of undergrounding utilities in the city of Berkeley.

Ms. Gaston’s article also implies little has been done to improve public safety after the 1989 earthquake and the 1991 firestorm. Her piece reveals a lack of knowledge. In my opinion the city has acted very responsibly by: improving vegetation management programs, purchasing an emergency aboveground water system for firefighting, retrofitting public safety facilities including construction of Fire Station 7, purchasing new equipment to fight wildland fires, ongoing firefighter training to respond to wildland fires, improving paramedic response, and adopting new and stricter building codes, mutual aid agreements, and shared communications systems.

Partnerships between city employees and the public have been forged through multiple programs such as the neighborhood cache program, the gas shut off value program and Community Resilience Centers serving as hubs for disaster preparedness and response information. Considerable resources are devoted to educating and training the public to prepare and protect themselves, their families and their neighborhoods. The city has adopted a FEMA praised Hazard Mitigation plan and our city’s Emergency Operations Plan is now being updated.

Susan Wengraf has had a leadership role in all of these efforts.

My long experience has taught me disaster preparedness is never finished. By its very nature it is always a work in progress and utility undergrounding is one tool in the public safety tool-kit. But it is a very important tool to pursue. Let’s not let the naysayers block the study of a potentially good idea. Instead, let’s use our intelligence, experience and innovative thinking to everyone’s advantage and explore the possibility for the greater good.

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Terry Roberts is former Public Works director in Oakland and former Deputy City Manager in San Jose. He previously served on the Berkeley Transportation Commission and currently serves on the Berkeley Police Review Commission. He is a resident of District 6 in Berkeley.