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A Drill in Downtown Readiness

Lawn chairs and Game Boys turn Civic Center evacuation exercise into a blase affair.

September 10, 2004|Hector Becerra and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

It was supposed to be a spontaneous exercise designed to test preparedness for an earthquake, terrorist attack or other disaster.

But to the chagrin of some officials, the mood felt more like a late-summer picnic.

With lawn chairs, bagged lunches, bottled water and Nintendo Game Boys, 9,000 Civic Center workers casually strolled from downtown Los Angeles government buildings Thursday at 10 a.m. in what officials billed the city's biggest-ever evacuation drill.

Police headquarters, City Hall and federal and criminal court buildings were emptied for more than an hour in a test designed to simulate the large-scale evacuation of the city's core.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people were expected to take part in the exercise, but officials said many employees decided to skip the drill by missing work. Indeed, Mayor James K. Hahn and all of the other 17 elected city officials were conveniently away from City Hall when the alarm bells sounded.

Officials expressed some disappointment at how blase many people were about the evacuations, as workers could be seen hanging out in the staging areas reading magazines and listening to portable stereos.

"That is one of the things we did not really want folks to do," said Ellis Stanley, general manager of the Emergency Preparedness Department.

Some workers said they had been forewarned about the drill as far back as a month ago.

"They told us to bring comfortable shoes, and to bring water," said Isabel Diaz, 50, a worker in the federal building. "Hello! We're not going to have these things in a real event."

Diaz said that the drill turned out to be so scripted, she would have preferred to spend her time catching up on work.

"This was like a picnic," she said. "It was a waste of time to me."

Still, Los Angeles city fire Capt. Carlos Trejos declared the evacuations a success while admitting that perhaps an extra dose of reality was called for the next time. He noted that he saw only one person with a flashlight leaving City Hall East.

"Turn the lights out of the stairway, and it's a different story. Firefighters know that.... That would be a good drill," Trejos said.

He thought for a second, then rejected the idea. "People might get hurt."

There was certainly no panic at the Civic Center on Thursday, largely because workers have known for weeks that the drill was coming. The anticipation started early.

"Hey George, ready for the evacuation?" a city employee asked George Gonzalez of Pasadena with a laugh outside of City Hall East about half an hour before the drill.

"Oh, I think we were getting hints two weeks ago," Gonzalez said.

While the evacuation was set to start at 10 a.m., some people didn't wait.

"Getting a head start?" one woman asked another employee near an elevator, to laughter.

The evacuations from seven Civic Center buildings took place under a light, sporadic drizzle and humid conditions. Some evacuees returned to the criminal courts building looking a bit sunburned.

"It felt like Costa Rica," said Holly Beckner, a deputy city attorney and supervisor for that office's Central Trials division.

Beckner was responsible for the evacuation of more than 80 employees.

While workers exited buildings using stairwells, designated organizers searched offices to make sure people were not left behind.

Empty offices were tagged for firefighters. Disabled workers were among the few allowed to stay behind because of the risk of injury during a practice evacuation.

"Someone said to me when we were out there, 'You know if there's a real emergency, everyone's going to run in all directions,' " Beckner said. "I disagree. I think that now that we've done it once, everybody will know where to go. It'll be a behavior pattern that's already learned, and I think that's important."

On the 24th floor of City Hall, two of the 14 employees were absent at the time of the drill, and the rest of the workers had to walk down 21 flights of stairs to reach an exit, said floor warden Glen Hino.

Once outside, people did whatever they could to pass the time as comfortably as they could.

Isela Viramontes, 28, emerged from the federal building with a backpack and large bag. She pulled out a folding director's chair from a bag and waited out the drill on Olvera Street.

A federal building colleague, Doreen Yee, came prepared with bottled water and a chicken sandwich along with her own chair.

James Limb, 33, of Torrance brought a deck of cards so he and a group of workers from the federal building could play. No bets were placed, he said.

"We played poker," he said. "Just to kill the time."

Times staff writer Anna Gorman contributed to this report.

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