Binational flood exercise strengthens vital communication channels

Published Dec. 5, 2022
Graphical map of the Tijuana River Watershed

Graphical map of the Tijuana River Watershed. (Illustration by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Graphical map of potential Barrett Dam inundation flow.

Graphical map of potential Barrett Dam inundation flow. (Illustration by California Department of Water Resources)

If there’s a single common cause of best-laid plans falling apart at the seams, it probably has something to do with poor communications.

Fortunately, that wasn’t lost on Silver Jackets members who work at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) South Pacific Division when they began developing a virtual tabletop exercise to validate the Barrett Dam Emergency Action Plan and Emergency Response Plan in the spring of 2022. With Barrett Dam being in the binational Tijuana River watershed, flood impacts would be largely in the more populated areas of Tijuana, Mexico. With a risk of a binational disaster, cross-border flood risk communication and coordination is vital to saving lives.

“We need to coordinate ahead of disasters, so we know whom to call and who has certain resources,” said Eileen Takata, who worked in the LA District as a watershed program manager when the cross-border flood risk was identified.

“That’s the point of Silver Jackets projects; to have these interagency collaborative efforts that help us prepare for emergencies. You don’t want to build a response team during an emergency, you want to build it before. You save more lives that way.”

The 2022 Binational Flood Response Exercise that took place on Nov. 9 was conceived of by staff from the County of San Diego Office of Emergency Services and by USACE Silver Jackets California Team members who identified a cross-border flood risk if Barrett Dam were to breach. The California Silver Jackets Team includes federal, state, and local agencies, and is co-led by California Department of Water Resources/California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The team is focused on inter-agency collaboration to reduce flood risk and increase resiliency through risk communication.

While a breach of the City of San Diego-owned dam is unlikely, its inundation would lead to massive flooding into the Tijuana River watershed, causing catastrophic loss of life and property. With so much at risk, the need to coordinate emergency response plans with Mexico counterparts was deemed vital, especially after cross-border communications had languished due to pandemic-induced challenges.

The nearly 3-hour exercise included more than 100 participants from the County of San Diego OES, San Diego Fire Department, California Highway Patrol, the Estatal de Protección Civil de Baja California, among many others on each side of California’s southern border. It tested cross-border communication and helped all participants gain an understanding of binational disaster response capabilities between U.S. and Mexico agencies, especially those that operate at the dam and within surrounding communities.

Nick Zubel, senior emergency services coordinator for the County of San Diego OES, helped moderate the exercise. Among other responsibilities, Zubel ensures that the county’s emergency operations plan is maintained, tested, and validated on a regular basis, so the exercise offered a good opportunity to help test the county’s communications capabilities.

One of Zubel’s big concerns before and during emergencies is the potential for “silos of communication” during an emergency response, especially ones that could cross into Mexico.

“Disasters do not consider boundaries and borders,” Zubel said with a sense of gravity. “The more we exercise, the more we know whom to communicate with. That allows information to be shared across all agencies to build a common operating picture, for real-time situation awareness.”

The exercise kicked off with a simulated one-two punch disaster scenario of torrential rains followed by a powerful earthquake centered near the dam. 

To help mitigate any language barriers, Patricia Fontanet Rodriguez, who works as a Natural Disaster Planner in the Sacramento District’s Emergency Operations Center, served as the bilingual primary moderator, while interpreters from the Albuquerque District, Sacramento District, and Los Angeles District translated responses from exercise participants

To understand the importance of the exercise, Fontanet Rodriguez said it’s necessary to understand the Tijuana River Watershed and the geographic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

“If Barrett Dam were to breach, flood flows of 1 million cubic feet per second could reach Mexico in under an hour,” said Fontanet Rodriguez. “Without proper communication protocols in place, lives, property, and the environment are at greater risk of flood impacts.”

To get an idea of what that much water would look like, imagine five Goodyear blimps rushing past you every second. That’s a lot of water, and the damage could be catastrophic to virtually anything in its path.

Throughout the exercise, participants from both sides of the border were queried about what actions they would be taking at that moment, what information they would be sharing, and with whom they would be communicating.

Perhaps equally as important as the substance of the responses, was the act of collaboration between people who in some cases had never communicated with each other before. That was a fundamental win for the exercise planners and facilitators.

“Our main goal was to build a rapport and relationship with our Mexican partners,” said Megan Whalen, watershed program manager with USACE’s Los Angeles District, and a primary exercise planner. “Language barriers, stress, and a more complex chain of command can make everything take longer. We’re trying to understand how to follow protocol, but also save lives because time is what will save lives.”

Sarah Moore, a planner with the Albuquerque District, was the exercise’s “big picture” facilitator who helped ensure that everyone’s efforts achieved the goals of building trust, binational collaboration, and opening dialogue going between the countries.

After the exercise, she reflected on their success.

“Patricia was wonderful under pressure,” recalled Moore. “There was a hurricane of activity and tech issues going on in the background, but it looked calm on the front end.

It sounds simple enough to get professionals to talk about their response strategies openly and how they would share information in the midst of an emergency response, but Moore said that it doesn’t happen without people committing to finding out their vulnerabilities, which is often related to communication.

“I think this was a great first step towards open communication between all players,” said Moore.

For Fontanet Rodriguez, the biggest takeaway was realizing how much need there was for someone to champion the exercise. 

“We kept hearing from agency partners who were struggling to find funding, time, and resources to build relationships with their Mexico counterparts. Everyone understood the importance of strengthening cross-border relationships to improve emergency management response capabilities, but it was challenging to find a mechanism to bring all partners together. In this case, it seems Silver Jackets provided the silver bullet.”