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JAMES RICCI : Metropolis / Snapshots From The Center
of The Universe

Dealing With Whatever Rocks His World--and Ours

February 18, 2001|JAMES RICCI

IT WOULD BE OVERLY POETICAL TO SAY CATASTROPHE STALKS L.A.'S Disaster Man. Yet every major earthquake, wildfire, flood and civil unraveling to befall the city since 1971 has brought Bob Canfield to ground near the center of efforts to contain, succor and restore.

Catastrophe even followed him home once. The 1994 Northridge earthquake throttled his Woodland Hills residence in the early morning of Jan. 17. When the shaker was finished, the fireplace had fallen. Two-by-fours poked through the interior walls. Water pipes spouted. Gas lines leaked. The garage had collapsed onto one of the cars.

As soon as the shuddering stopped, Canfield made his way to the telephone and managed to get through to the city's Emergency Operations Center and report that, based on the evidence within arm's reach of him, Los Angeles had "a serious problem." In the beam of a flashlight, he dictated the mayor's official declaration of emergency.

Canfield is 57, a sturdily built man with a precisely etched beard and a squared-away manner befitting an ex-Marine and former LAPD sergeant. He is assistant general manager of the city's Emergency Preparedness Department. His boss is Ellis Stanley, a catastrophe manager of national standing, brought from Atlanta to head the newly independent EPD IN 1997. He and Canfield, Stanley says, "try not to both be out of town at the same time."

Among city employees, Canfield has been working full time in the catastrophe business in L.A. for 13 years, longer than anyone. Before that he did disaster planning part time during 23 years with the LAPD.

Plans for large-scale evacuations, forays to distant disaster sites to mine for lessons, the preparing of cops and firefighters and city engineers and sanitation workers to think across bureaucratic lines when catastrophe has turned the everyday order into an omelet--these are the protein and carbohydrates of his daily work diet.

Canfield is the sort of man who often says "shucks" and claims no interest in drawing attention to himself. He is proud, however, of EPD's work and national reputation and, at the slightest provocation, will hold forth encyclopedically on the subject

"I equate our work with insurance work," he says. "Part of the city's insurance is the ability of all departments to function even in the most adverse circumstances, to respond to 911 calls when the power's out and the streets are torn up. No matter what, people want fire engines and police cars. No matter what, they want water to come out of the tap. We are leaders in the world in this area."

On a recent weekday morning, here's what was going on in Bob Canfield's world:

A magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck along the Palos Verdes fault, dumping part of the Vincent Thomas Bridge into the harbor, triggering landslides, setting oil refineries afire, derailing trains and cutting off freeways.

More than 75 city employees from a score of departments were assembled in the subterranean Emergency Operations Center beneath City Hall East to deal with all this, in the annual citywide disaster exercise held on the anniversary of the Northridge earthquake.

Participants were arrayed at 75 workstations with computers whose emergency power was secured by quadruply redundant generators. For more than five hours, simulators fed them authentic-sounding, urgent requests, testing players' skills at interpreting and properly directing them to operating units on the devastated landscape outside.

While players trafficked in the stuff of chaos, Canfield moved serenely through the scene, necktie knotted, sport jacket buttoned, ready to impart the procedural wisdoms it is his responsibility to have (not everyone realized, for example, that no matter who requests the National Guard, it must by law report to the county sheriff).

The scene in the Emergency Operations Center would have been much the same had L.A. been struck by fire or flood instead of earthquake. All catastrophes, however, don't carry the same wallop.

Of the many unhingings he's worked, Canfield says, the 1992 riots were the hardest. "In addition to the destruction, you had racial animosity and fear that you don't have with an earthquake. The 1994 earthquake killed a serious number of people, but afterward people didn't fear one another. They weren't as emotionally scarred."

Being perpetually preoccupied with disaster, one would think, might predispose a person to pessimism, to sensing ruin in every ground vibration and drop of rain. In fact, pondering the thought in his underground office, Canfield professes himself a kind of optimist.

"I think if you have the attitude, 'It'd be better to be dead,' you'll fold up and will die. My attitude is, 'We will survive.' If you have a major, major disaster earthquake and 10,000 people in L.A. County are killed, that's still only 1% of the population. The other 99% are going to be left with this big mess, but most of us are going to survive."

Besides, he says, leaning forward and rapping on the side of his wooden desk, we haven't had a really big disaster in seven years.

Tick, tick, tick.

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