Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina Five Years Later: Safety responders bring lessons home

Boat that washed ashore blocks St. Bernard Parish street.

When Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast five years ago, not only did it destroy communities, it overwhelmed local governments. The needs of desperate citizens far exceeded the ability of their government agencies to respond.

The response had to come from across the country and in some cases from outside the United States.

Likely we all have vivid memories of the television news reports showing first responders risking their lives as they plucked stranded people from the rooftops of their homes in flooded New Orleans neighborhoods.

A less dramatic, but important response involved teams of safety professionals and damage assessment experts, who were dispatched to New Orleans, where levies had collapsed. These teams were also sent to the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast, where Katrina ground away thousands of homes, beach front businesses and historic landmarks. Entire communities were either blown or washed away.

Bakersfield architect William Melby and Chris Lee, who now serves as the City of Bakersfield’s assistant building director, were members of specially trained, volunteer teams sent to the devastated St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. Lee worked for the City of Anaheim at the time.

Melby recalls that he volunteered for California’s Office of Emergency Safety Assessment Program thinking he would be responding to earthquakes, floods and fires in California. It was a civic commitment he made believing if he helped a suffering community, a helpful hand would be extended to Bakersfield in an emergency.

Melby admits it came as a surprise when he and other California volunteers – architects, engineers and building officials – were dispatched across the country to claw their way through the rubble of Katrina.

Their base of operations was a tent city surrounded by debris and damaged buildings. Their job was to assess the structural integrity of every building. A green tag meant the building was safe, although it might be damaged. Red tag indicated a building was unsafe and posed a threat to life. A yellow tag indicated some risk, with limited use allowed.

Every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., teams fanned out into neighborhoods to inspect buildings. The tags they hung determined if a family could return home. They alerted residents and emergency responders to hidden dangers that existed in the abandon structures.

Initially their work was hindered by the lack of maps, supplies and direction. A St. Bernard Parish building official who greeted them when they arrived, was never seen again. It was the National Guard that pulled together the effort.

After volunteers were inoculated to safeguard them from the health hazards they would encounter, they formed small teams and set about the tedious task of “triaging” damaged buildings. These were long, hot, humid days of wading through mud and devastation.

Melby described surreal scenes of cars and boats that had landed on rooftops. He encountered remnants of personal loss – homes littered with toys, wedding photographs, dolls, scrapbooks, clothing and furniture.

The volunteers tried to shut out the painful scenes. They focused on the buildings. But it wasn’t that easy. Lee recalled team members held themselves together during their 16-day inspection assignments, but on the way home, when the pressure was off, some began to cry.

Both Melby and Lee have responded to other disasters, sharing their professional skills and compassion to help communities recover. But as these communities have benefited, so has Bakersfield. With each out-of-area response, Bakersfield’s readiness is fine-tuned.

From Katrina and other disasters, Lee says he has become more aware of the consequences of a community’s resources being wiped out. He has learned that a community must be prepared for the very worst that can happen.

Bakersfield building inspectors, who are certified as “disaster inspectors,” conduct annual drills, setting up a mobile emergency center and defining roles. Regular citywide drills, which involve all departments within the city, as well as regional agencies, also fine-tune and update local disaster response plans.

In their book “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson identified New Orleans’ lack of preparedness as a big factor in the city’s faltering recovery. Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois, and Johnson, a planning consultant, worked on New Orleans’ recovery plans.

Centuries old, New Orleans lacked maps and plans for many neighborhoods when Katrina hit. Residents paid the price for city officials’ lackadaisical approach to disaster preparedness, the authors told urban planners meeting this spring during the American Planning Association’s conference in New Orleans.

“The days and weeks following a disaster are not the ideal time to initiate planning,” Olshansky and Johnson wrote in their book. “The best preparation for recovery planning is to have active planning processes beforehand that include networks of well-established community organizations, clear lines of communication, and a variety of planning documents and tools.”

Five years later, New Orleans still struggles to recover from its fatal and tragic failure to plan for the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Bakersfield and Kern County officials, especially those who witnessed firsthand Katrina's aftermath in New Orleans, are committed to having resources and plans ready to respond to local natural and man-made disasters.

This article by John Hardisty (Jack) appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Aug. 29, 2010. Hardisty retired in 2004 as the City of Bakersfield’s development services director. He is now a planning consultant and mediator.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

HISTORY SERIES: UP Train Conductor Wants to Save Bakersfield Depot

Union Pacific train enters the weather-beaten station in east Bakersfield.

Stephen Montgomery is an architectural sleuth. When he is not working as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad, he spends his spare time poking his nose into and under some of Bakersfield’s oldest buildings.

He lifts dates off of plumbing fixture, finds discarded catalogues stuck in walls and searches through government documents – all part of his tedious hunt for the pieces of puzzles that tell the stories of decades-old homes and businesses.

He also is a man on a mission: Protecting Bakersfield’s history.

No high-falutin’ government agency appointed him to this task or mission. He’s just a regular guy, a lifelong resident of Bakersfield, a member of the Kern County Historical Society, a self-taught architectural detective and a passionate believer that Bakersfield isn’t doing enough to protect its heritage.

And that belief particularly applies to the building he has worked in during his more than 40-year railroad career.

Once known as the Southern Pacific Railroad depot on the corner of Baker and Sumner streets, the building is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, after a merger in the mid-1990s.

Appearing weather-beaten and forgotten, the east Bakersfield building is still used by crews manning the six to 10 freight trains that pass by the station every day.

But the glory of its past – when it formed the hub of a new town named Sumner, and when passengers would squeeze through its doors and line the benches of its waiting room – are long gone.

Montgomery is convinced railroad officials are just letting it deteriorate and crumble into a memory.

He would like to see the building sold to investors and “repurposed for business and professional uses.” Montgomery envisions the building becoming a restaurant, collection of shops or turn-of-the-century themed focal point for a revitalized Baker Street corridor.

Before the present economic slump, the city’s redevelopment agency was moving forward with plans for east Bakersfield’s revitalization. But reportedly that did not include investors stepping forward to acquire and “repurpose” the landmark railroad station.

“Currently we use the building as office space for several dozen people, some of whom are train crews that pick up their trains out of our yard in Bakersfield,” said Aaron Hunt, Union Pacific’s director of corporate communications and media. “We will continue using the building in this capacity for the foreseeable future.

“The depot sits on railroad right-of-way and is near our line. As such, safety is a primary concern for us. In that context we plan to continue using the building as office space for railroad employees,” he said. “We work hard to be accessible to the communities where we operate trains. If a party is interested in purchasing the depot, we would be willing to have a conversation about it.”

But like city officials, Hunt has not heard of any investors interested in buying and renovating the building.

Construction of the depot began in 1888, when the Southern Pacific Co. expanded into the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Residents and business owners in Sumner applied pressure on the company to expand railroad facilities east of Bakersfield.

First to be constructed was a machine shop. Later the company’s maintenance facilities in Tulare were shifted to Bakersfield. Shortly after the move, work on the brick depot and a hotel was started. The depot was officially opened on June 27, 1889.

In his analysis of the building that is on file with Bakersfield Economic and Community Development Department, historian Chris Brewer called the depot an architectural “disaster.”

“It is a combination of several different architectural styles, including Richardsonian Romanesque, Spanish Colonial Revival and Moderne,” Brewer wrote. “The roofline and arcade are the only elements which have original architecture somewhat intact.”

The building has been severely altered numerous times over its more than 100-year existence. Alterations included spraying gunite over its brick exterior. Despite these changes, Brewer concluded the building “is significant to the area both economically and to a lesser extent architecturally.”

And it is this “significance” that bugs Montgomery the most about old buildings, and how they are regarded in Bakersfield.

The son of Stephen H. Montgomery, a Bakersfield doctor, Montgomery was born in Bakersfield and graduated from Bakersfield High School. Even as a child, Montgomery said he had an interest in architecture and a sense of history. He recalls, for example, being in the audience as Bakersfield’s Civic Auditorium on Truxtun Avenue was officially opened.

He studied architecture-related classes at Bakersfield College and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. But a stint in the military ended his college education. Needing a job after his discharge, he signed on with the Southern Pacific Railroad.

That was in 1969. Montgomery was 24 years old. The Sumner depot was a beehive of activity, serving as the headquarters for the San Joaquin Division’s superintendent. Much of the rail’s coordination that is now automated was being done manually.

Changes in railroading have taken its toll on the building. Passenger service transferred to Amtrak. Much of the building was converted to storage. Portions of the once ornate portico promenade were enclosed to expand office space. The entire complex became emeshed in chain-link security fencing.

Montgomery is now 65. He has watched and fretted over the building’s four decades of decay. Even on a recent tour of the building, he was quick to point out the shingles and boards that were peeled away by the wind of a recent spring storm.

On July 12, Montgomery will retire from railroading. He is going back to school, taking classes at Bakersfield College in building codes and materials of construction. He’s getting serious about his historical preservation mission.

A long-time union officer, Montgomery says he is used to butting heads with railroad officials. He’s now preparing to butt heads with city officials.

“I have a few attitudes to overcome,” he said.

He believes Bakersfield should have a historical preservation ordinance based on the age of a building, not on its standing on a “historical register.”

To demolish any building over a certain age – perhaps the cutoff being 50 years old – should require a study of its historical significance.

Like the Sumner Street railroad depot, a building might not be an architectural work of art. But it may be significant for other reasons and worth saving.

This article by John Hardisty -- a Bakersfield court mediator and planning consultant – first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on July 11, 2010. John Hardisty writes the newspaper’s occasional column “If these walls could talk.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bakersfield KERO 23: John Hardisty, Ted James warn California farm land threatened

California government’s shortchanging of the state’s counties could lead to prime agricultural land being lost to farming, according to a report by Bakersfield television station KERO.

Reporter Felix Rodrigues Lima interviewed Ted James, the director of Kern County’s development services department, and his former counterpart with the City of Bakersfield, John Hardisty, who now operates the Bakersfield land-use consulting firm South Valley Solutions.

Both agreed that the state’s decision not to support the Williamson Act jeopardizes agricultural land preservation. The state has shortchanged counties and cities millions of dollars in promised tax subsidies.

One of several California counties that participate in the program, Kern County was supposed to receive $4.6 million in state “subventions.” Instead, it recently received only $133.22.

The paltry amount is Kern County’s share of just $1,000 left in the state budget for the program after last summer’s legislative hearings, instead of the $28 million that should have been allocated.

In exchange for reducing property taxes on farm land, the state for decades has promised to reimburse counties for lost tax revenues. But the state last summer reneged on that promise.

With California now nearly $20 billion in the budget hole, it is likely legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will do that again.

"Not receiving this annual payment is a major issue for the county," James said.

Hardisty told KERO that the Williamson Act is “consistent with policies of the state for compacting development, making sure they don't get too spread out and sprawled."

James called the state’s actions “contrary to the laws they have about preserving prime farmland. … On the one hand, you want us to preserve the land, but on the other, you're not giving us a financial incentive to do that."

Abandoning the program, which was created through an act authored by former Kern County Assemblyman John Williamson in the 1960s, is currently not an option for the county, James told KERO. Instead, it is monitoring how other agencies react, and looking for other sources of funding.

"One may be a user fee," he said. "Another could be some kind of transactional costs, one to enter the program, one to participate, and when you leave the program there's a cost as well."

Monday, May 31, 2010

'Steam' Building Over California High Speed Rail Route

No doubt, California’s high speed rail project is a hot topic. There’s a lot to love and hate with this project. Earlier this year, I wrote an opinion article in The Bakersfield Californian about Bakersfield competing for a test track and heavy maintenance facility. (“High-speed rail prize awaits the valley community that has its act together,” by John Hardisty)

In the Sunday, May 30, edition, Californian reporter Steve Mayer wrote about the controversy swirling around proposed high speed rail routes. In his story, the routes through Bakersfield were delineated with “blue” and “red” lines, but both basically follow an existing railroad alignment.

The plan is for the route to enter Bakersfield from the northwest, stop at a downtown terminal and exit to the east on the way to the Antelope Valley and beyond to Southern California.

Because of the speed, both routes deviate a bit – in a sweeping curve – from the existing railroad alignment. Likely historic homes and buildings are in its path, causing controversy in the city. But Bakersfield is not alone in raising concerns about the path high speed rail will take. Farmers up and down the San Joaquin Valley are expressing concerns. Battles have broken out in the Bay Area and Southern California.

Bringing a high speed rail line through Bakersfield will be disruptive, as well as beneficial. Issues of safety and noise will need to be addressed for either the blue or red lines. Rather than deciding that the exact alignment will be where the preliminary study lines have been drawn, the design engineers and environmental reviewers should be refining a route that would least impact the community.

Wherever possible, they need to avoid schools, hospitals, homes, businesses and churches.

In the end, perhaps the alignment can follow some of the blue and some of the red route noted in The Bakersfield Californian’s story. As they get down to the details of design, you can bet they won’t follow any proposed route 100 percent.

Although this project has been in the works for more than a decade, it has been more "theory" than "fact." Voters approving a nearly $10 billion bond measure in 2008 and then the Obama administration recently pitching in another $2.6 billion (thereabouts) has moved the project into the "possible" category. That means people are now bickering over the details, like where the tracks will go. If you think getting a freeway alignment adopted is tough, you ain't seen nothing yet. This could be a bigger battle.

John Hardisty (Jack) retired as the Bakersfield city development services director in 2004. He is now a court mediator and planning consultant. His comments appear on The Bakersfield Californian Website and on his Planning Beat blog.

Blood donations made at Houchin in Bakersfield, Calif., may end up on Iraq, Afghanistan battlefield

Houchin Blood Bank / John Harte

Writing in today’s Bakersfield Californian, Maureen Buscher-Dang reveals that people who donate blood at their local community blood banks may be helping U.S. soldiers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As an example, she notes that during the past 18 months, Houchin Community Blood Bank in Bakersfield, Calif., has sent six shipments – each containing 15 units of blood products – to the Armed Services Blood Bank Center in Tacoma, Wash.

The center’s primary mission is to support the nation’s military operations, explained Victor Shermer, the center’s donor recruiter and public affairs officer. Shermer also is a retired Army major.

Shermer told Buscher-Dang that within a week of being drawn from a donor in Bakersfield, or someplace else in the United States, a unit of blood may be helping a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Armed Services Blood Program relies primarily on military personnel, military families, federal employees and participants in universities’ reserve officer training corps for blood donations. But like with their civilian counterparts, sometimes there is a special need for a rare blood type and inventories run low. The Armed Services Blood Program then sends out a call to purchase units from civilian centers, such as Houchin.

“December and January are the worse months of the year,” explained Shermer. “Soldiers go home on leave. They are not available to donate. When we do not have enough to meet our quota, we purchase it.”

Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations consultant, who represents Houchin Community Blood Bank. She is passionate about donating blood and supporting our troops. Until his recent retirement, her husband, Alex Dang, was a member of the Army Reserves and completed a tour of duty in Iraq.

About the author: John Hardisty (Jack) retired as the Bakersfield city development services director in 2004. John Hardisty of Bakersfield is now a court mediator and planning consultant. His wife, Dianne, is an associate in his firm South Valley Solutions. They also write together. Dianne Hardisty posts many of their stories on her Examiner page.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bakersfield Offers California White Water Rafting Experience on the Kern River

Late season storms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and a thick blanket of snow have white water rafting operators on the Kern River, in Central California, celebrating.

Water on the Kern River is at its highest level in years, said Darron Nilsson, operator of River's End Rafting & Adventure Co. in Bakersfield, Calif. Nilsson predicts rafting on the river will continue through Labor Day.

In recent, drought-plagued years, rafting operators were lucky to squeeze a July season out of the Kern River. But with the snow pack this year at 143 percent of normal, the river is raging. Last year’s snow pack was only 34 percent.

Most tourists think about heading into the Kern Canyon, more than a 30-minute drive on a twisting mountain road east of Bakersfield, to raft the Kern River.

But Nilsson’s company, which is located at the mouth of the canyon, in metropolitan Bakersfield, offers a quality and convenient experience for novice and experienced rafters, alike. Nilsson rates the rapids in the Rio Bravo stretch of the river he rafts as averaging Category 2 and 3.

Telephone 1-866-360-RAFT or click on the River's End Rafting website.

About the author: John Hardisty of Bakersfield retired as the city's development services director and now operates the consulting firm South Valley Solutions. John Hardisty is a once-a-year white water rafter who looks for adventure, but doesn't want to kill himself on the mighty Kern River. He discovered that River's End Rafting & Adventure Co. offers just the right balance of excitement and safety.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hunting for Bakersfield's 'historic character'

John Hardisty spent nearly 30 years guiding the city of Bakersfield, Calif., forward as its development services director. He managed the city’s Planning Department as Bakersfield grew to include about 143 square miles and serve a population of nearly 340,000 people.

During those years, his focus was on the present and the future. Now retired from the city and working as a planning consultant and court mediator, Hardisty’s focus is also on the past, as he writes an occasional column for The Bakersfield Californian .

Beginning with his May 23 feature on the turn-of-the-century home of the late Louise V. Olcese, a Bakersfield capitalist, Hardisty will write about the historic, significant and sometimes downright strange homes and buildings in Bakersfield.

Bakersfield, at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, has a rich history rooted in oil and agriculture. It also has a hard-scrabble reputation born of the struggles of the Depression-era Okies, who flocked to the community.

Known for its brand of Country Western music and Basque food, Bakersfield can be as sophisticated as any city – and mind you, it’s California’s 11th largest – but it can also be a bit quirky.

Hardisty’s occasional column will highlight such attractions as Bakersfield’s tallest building and explain why at 12 floors it was required to obtain a variance from the city’s height limitation. He also will interview the architect of Bakersfield’s futuristic-looking triangle building and recall the 1970s battle waged to get city clearance to build the “funny looking thing.”

At the center of what was once the city of Kern (east Bakersfield) is a sprawling, formerly elegant train station. He will tour readers through the now mostly boarded up and weather-beaten structure, which is used by the railroad to house a skeleton staff and store supplies.

“To keep moving forward, it is important for every community to understand its past,” said Hardisty, explaining the focus of his column. “To attempt progress without an understanding and respect for history is like building without a foundation.”

This sensitivity to history is particularly important to Bakersfield. The city was hit in 1952 by an earthquake that destroyed much of its downtown and many of its public buildings. Some contend Bakersfield’s historic character was turned to rubble by the earthquake. But if you look closely, you will find some remnants have survived.

Hardisty’s column will take readers on a treasure hunt for Bakersfield’s historic character. The articles will be reprinted on this blog beginning with the May 23, 2010 feature about the Olcese House.