October 5th, 2015


Former Director, Communities for a Better Environment

Chief Resilience Officer, San Francisco

Sustainable Development Policy Director, SPUR


A year ago, “Stormageddon” hammered Northern California, causing power outages, flooding and millions in property damage. The 2013 Rim Fire, the third largest wildfire in California’s history, raged for nine weeks and cost San Francisco $36 million.  With El Niño 2015 waiting in the wings, more extreme weather is in the forecast, scientists predict. How prepared are we?

That was the topic of a recent Climate One discussion, held at the Bay Observatory in San Francisco’s Exploratorium. SPUR’s Laura Tam started things off with a list of what Bay Area residents can expect in the coming years:

“Extreme heat -- we’re expecting the range of temperatures by the end of the century to be four to seven degrees higher than they are today. There’s more extreme wildfires, there’s sea level rise, there’s extreme storms and flooding …and there’s the drought!”

“So we have a lot cut out for us, and we have a lot to do to prepare.”

As Chief Resilience Officer for San Francisco, Patrick Otellini sees his role as “more of a conduit than anything else,” connecting traditionally siloed government offices to create a unified approach to disaster preparation.  One example? Adapting building and planning standards to prepare for not only seismic events, but also newer threats like sea level rise and the downpours and flooding El Nino is expected to bring.  

While devastating weather could affect us all, it’s no secret that there’s an income gap in the Bay Area; some residents will ride out the storm better than others.  As an example, Otellini cites the city dwellers who currently live in rent-controlled apartments.

“We lose these buildings in the earthquake, we have a 120,000 San Franciscans that previously enjoyed their rent controlled status,” he says, “and now have to compete with market rate rents that are the highest they’ve ever been in our history.”  

“It just begs the conversation that government has to do better about thinking about how we design policy around these issues,” Otellini admits.

Nile Malloy is the former Northern California director of advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment.  He says that poor communities such as Richmond, Oakland and East Palo Alto, are especially impacted by environmental hazards like air pollution and heat extremes. The risk is compounded by unemployment and lack of access to resources such as public transportation and healthy food.

“Climate change is a new, like another compounded issue that’s facing communities,” Malloy says.  “How do you address this issue when you have other concerns about your health, access to healthcare, immigration issues, et cetera?”

One major asset is the social safety net fostered by African-American churches and other community centers. Establishing cooling centers for heat waves, for example, is one way for neighbors to support each other in a crisis.

“So very like community, grassroots kind of neighborhood level ideas that’s been bubbling up…Like trying to find designated locations in a community where people can actually go to cool down, share food and have a good time.”

Many of New Orleans’ citizens faced similar challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What lessons can San Francisco learn from disasters like Katrina and Superstorm Sandy? How can it shield its communities from devastation, and keep them whole afterwards?

Malloy says that, ten years after Katrina, he has friends who still haven’t returned to New Orleans.  “The ability to bounce back for some of these folks is just pretty much …the comfort of home, you know, the sense of home, place.”

“I do think we need more kind of government support and interventions to make that possible.  And I think it needs to be planned out with the community to really be engaged in that process...and also how to bear in mind what resources are available from the government to actually enable that to happen.”

To that end, according to Otellini, San Francisco wants to do things differently.  “Something that the mayor’s uniquely focused on is making sure that we keep 85% to 95% of our population here in San Francisco after a disaster,” he says.

While FEMA’s approach post-disaster has been to focus on evacuation, with little thought to when and if people can return, “The mayor’s plan is very simple: it’s to keep people in their homes whenever possible.  If we can’t keep the people in their homes, keep them in their neighborhoods.  And if we can’t keep them in the neighborhoods, keep them in San Francisco… It’s making sure that people have those lifelines to be able to come back.”

When it comes to preparing for the next big disaster, both Tam and Malloy stress the importance of civic involvement and community engagement.

“Vote – and then spread the message!” says Tam.

Bolting your foundation, retrofitting your home and laying by the traditional “emergency kit” – all of those steps are important, says Otellini.  But it’s just as crucial to be connected to your neighbors.

“I think back to when I first moved to my current neighborhood about 10 years ago,” Otellini remembers. “It wasn’t, unfortunately, until there was a drive-by shooting on my block where I actually got to know my neighbors.  And that’s not a unique thing - tragedy brings us together all the time.  

“It’s a real challenge to try to do that with the absence of that tragedy. So one thing: go introduce yourself to your neighbors!”


This program is generously underwritten by The San Francisco Foundation and The Seed Fund.




Communities for a Better Environment

SF Department of Emergency Management: Get Prepared

NOAA: El Niño sets the stage for 2015-2016 Winter Weather


- Anny Celsi
October 5, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Ed Ritger