Take a look inside the City of Santa Cruz’s emergency operations center as it readies for storm damage

Inside the City of Santa Cruz's emergency operations center
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Set up at the City of Santa Cruz’s regional 911 dispatch center inside DeLaveaga Golf Course, the emergency operations center hums with late-morning activity, as neon vest-clad representatives from public works, parks and recreation, water, police, fire, finance, and other city departments gather around a conference table to discuss strategy, a live graph of the storm pattern and the San Lorenzo River’s water level broadcasted across six television screens.

As I write this, it almost looks like it is snowing along West Cliff Drive because of all the seafoam shooting up and over the cliffs. Wind gusts are picking up, rocking all of the parked cars along the road and sending most pedestrians and their dogs and baby carriages back to shelter.

Paul Horvat, the city of Santa Cruz’s emergency operations manager, told me this morning that Wednesday afternoon and into the evening is when he and his team expect the chaos to pick up.

“I’m paid to overreact,” Horvat tells me, standing in front of an in-depth organizational chart for the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which Horvat activated this morning ahead of Wednesday’s storm. “When people go, ‘Oh, he’s making it sound like a big deal,’ I’m okay with that reputation. I’m not okay being the guy who goes, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it was going to happen.’”

Set up at the city’s regional 911 dispatch center inside DeLaveaga Golf Course, the EOC hums with late-morning activity as neon vest-clad representatives from public works, parks and recreation, water, police, fire, finance, and other city departments gather around a conference table to discuss strategy, a live graph of the storm pattern and the San Lorenzo River’s water level broadcasted across six television screens.

“The New Year’s Eve event that we had was probably in the top 5 events I’ve seen since taking on this job in 1992,” Horvat says. He says the San Lorenzo River reaching 22 feet is a rarity. “This storm, we’re going to have higher winds, which means more downed trees, more downed power lines, which creates different problems — roads being blocked, power and communication outages.”

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Horvat says the city can only go off what the National Weather Service forecasts.

“I usually ratchet it up a couple notches because I know they can be wrong,” Horvat says, such as the New Year’s Eve storm, which was forecasted to only bring the San Lorenzo River’s level up to 12 feet.

Horvat points to 2011, after the city was pounded with a series of heavy rainstorms, the forecast for that Sunday was only a quarter-inch of rain.

He woke up Sunday morning to a torrential downpour, bringing what he remembers to be 3 inches in two hours. “It caught me totally off guard. That was the event that made me say, ‘Okay, I don’t care if they say it’s not going to rain that hard, I’m not going to let that happen again.”

Horvat says his main concerns heading into the afternoon and evening is tracking the San Lorenzo River’s levels, opening up the warming center at the city’s Civic Auditorium, as well as tracking all of the costs associated with responding to the storm — in case the city needs to declare a disaster and seek reimbursement from the state.

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