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Staying alert and safe through the storms - It's not too late to be prepared

Photo courtesy FEMA

       The first month of 2023 started with California being ravaged by strong rain and severe storms. On January 12 of this new year, Governor Gavin Newsom requested approval for a major disaster declaration, which President Joe Biden granted on January 14 for the counties of Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz.


Since Pres. Biden’s declaration was made, San Mateo County was added to the list of eligible counties.


While communities can be on the receiving end for devastating damages due to extreme weather, people are encouraged to learn how to handle these situations. Ethnic Media Services and California Black Media co-hosted a media briefing on January 17, and the guest speakers discussed staying safe and alert during the storms, along with the importance of having the necessary resources to be prepared for these weather conditions.


Diana Crofts-Pelayo, the assistant director of Crisis Communications and Media Relations for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), said her organization strongly believes that “every Californian, regardless of age, ability, income or language, deserves culturally competent education to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.”


Crofts-Pelayo said California has seen destructive flooding of homes and businesses, along with hurricane-force winds, levee breaches, and a tornado. There have been at least 20 reported deaths, calling the storms one of the most deadly natural disasters in the modern history of the state.


Crofts-Pelayo spoke at a media  briefing on January 17, 2023 that was co-hosted by Ethnic Media Servicerds and California Black Media.


She was one of several participants who spoke at the briefing about how one can gather the necessary resources to be prepared for extreme weather conditions, while also staying safe and alert while they happen.


During her remarks, Crofts-Pelayo said that it is not too late to be prepared for the next emergency. “It really is incumbent upon us all to talk as loved ones, family and friends, about emergency plans should another storm happen,” she said. “If you need to leave your house quickly, have (an emergency) kit. If you need to stay at home, … communicating and checking in with loved ones can really also help be part of this overall culture of preparedness and resilience that we can have here in California.” Crofts-Pelayo added that these conversations can also extend to earthquake and wildfire-related emergencies.


The major disaster declaration, requested by Newsom, provides a wide range of federal assistance programs to support and give relief to communities. Cal OES recently made a request for about 49 more counties to fall under the declaration. Vance Taylor, who serves as Cal OES’ Chief in the Office of Access and Functional Needs, said the approved counties are eligible to apply for FEMA, which can include grant money, furniture, medical equipment, rental aid or low-interest SBA loans.


To make sure people are able to register, FEMA will send out Disaster Survivor Assistance teams to shelters and approved areas, providing support for the registration process. Taylor added that Cal OES will work with FEMA to set up mobile registration intake centers, which will provide a service that comes to an applicant’s location, so that the person does not have to make a trip themselves to apply for assistance.


Taylor said when extreme weather disasters occur, “There are individuals who are disproportionately impacted by those disasters. And we’re talking about older adults. We’re talking about people with disabilities. We’re talking about people who are economically disadvantaged or transportation disadvantaged.”


Jason Wilken, who is a CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer assigned to the California Department of Public Health, advised anyone who returns to their home following a flood to avoid contact with floodwater. He said that floodwaters can contain toilet water, hazardous chemicals, heavy or sharp objects, or even live or dead animals. If touching floodwater is needed, he advised that people use rubber gloves and rubber boots, and then wash their hands with soap and clean water after contact. He also urged that children should be kept away from floodwater and other objects that made contact with the floodwater.


Wilken added that floods can make water unsafe to drink or use for cooking, washing or brushing teeth. “If you are on municipal water, if you have tap water, your local water authorities will let you know whether the tap water is safe to use, or whether it has to be boiled, or whether it should not be used at all. So, keep tabs with your local water authorities,” he said.


He also cautioned that floodwater can contaminate food and make it unsafe to eat. Any fresh or packaged food that the floodwater touched should be thrown out. Wilken recommended for cleaning and disinfecting that one use the most common and recommended cleaner -- a tablespoon of bleach into a gallon of water for cleaning utensils and surfaces.


He warned people to never mix cleaners, and risk more accidents such as creating chlorine gas that can overwhelm or incapacitate someone. Another post-flood health tip is drying the home and removing water-damaged items to avoid mold growth on hard surfaces.


Kim Johnson, the director of the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), recommended the department’s website at https://www.cdss.ca.gov for disaster assistance and other safety net resources. She also recommended CalHope at https://www.calhope.org or 1-833-317-HOPE (4673) for anyone, who needs to talk with someone, and1-888-670-1360 as a friendship line for older adults.


Johnson said a lot of the CDSS’ safety net service delivery is expanding based on the authorization of the major disaster declaration. So disaster CalFresh offerings will be coming for the eligible counties. As of now, the over five million individuals, who currently participate in CalFresh, who have lost food resources that they purchased, can get those replaced within 10 days of the loss by contacting their county’s social service agency.


Johnson noted the tremendous stress that impacted people are having related to extreme weather  events and pointed out “the ability and opportunity for individuals who are impacted to simply, really navigate this change, and just.” As of January 16, the CDSS had sheltered 755 people in 23 shelters.


Tony Cignarale, the Deputy Insurance Commissioner for Consumer Services at the California Department of Insurance, discussed the insurance coverage that exists in the event of damages caused by winter storms. Cignarale said that comprehensive auto insurance for cars covers flood and storm damage, while home and renters’ insurance covers fallen tree and wind damage, along with mudslides and debris flow due to a prior wildfire. Flood insurance is sold through the National Flood Insurance Program and, in most cases, takes effect 30 days after purchase.


Cignarale’s tips for insurance claims include: obtaining copies of insurance policies, contacting the insurance agent, writing down conversations with one’s insurance company in some type of diary, tracking all expenses while living away from home, taking pictures and videos of damage, and avoiding scams by contacting licensed contractors.


People can email or use social media to share resources and tips as they prepare their own plans for extreme weather. They can also find official resources at https://news.caloes.ca.gov/storms/ or https://news.caloes.gov/tormentas/. Vance Taylor said that people can apply for FEMA disaster assistance through https://www.disasterassistance.gov, the FEMA mobile app or by calling 1-800-621-3362. They can also visit https://calalerts.org to receive free emergency alerts



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