When it comes to disasters, Orange County officials consistently struggle to update residents in real time. 

This week’s oil spill was no different. 

So far, Coast Guard officials, who are leading the cleanup effort, haven’t been willing to comment on any aspects of how the spill started or what the early hours of the disaster response looked like, insisting all those details will come out in the investigation eventually.  

That lack of information put Huntington Beach officials in the hot seat, as residents asked who failed to notify roughly 1.5 million people out on the beach watching the Pacific Airshow on Saturday that an oil spill was coming their way. 

According to Huntington Beach city manager Oliver Chi, the coast guard’s early communications were “inconsistent,” as he publicly laid out the city’s version of what happened Saturday morning for city officials earlier this week. 

“As we’ve continued to work with the county, there has been some bit of an uneven initial response from the unified command structure,” Chi said in his report Monday night to the city council.  “Information has been a little bit spotty at times.”

The Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment on the city’s version of events.

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According to city officials, the first warning to the city about the spill came in over an open radio channel from the Coast Guard at 9 a.m. Saturday. But, Chi said the warning only mentioned a potential oil leak, with no specifics on where or how large the spill was. 

At that time, families were getting set up on the beach for the Pacific Airshow’s second day, which brought an estimated 1.5 million people into the city according to Huntington Beach city staff. Boats dotted the coast to watch the show, and the beaches were packed. 

At 10:00, the airshow began, as the US Navy’s Blue Angels roared in formation overhead and the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute team performed an organized jump in the skies to cheers from the crowds.

The air show in Huntington Beach on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Credit: Pacific Airshow

Half an hour into the festivities, city officials say they received a second call from the Coast Guard indicating that the spill could be larger than initially thought and they were going to do a flyby.

By 11:00, the Coast Guard classified it as a major spill. 

At noon, Coast Guard officials said the spill could grow large enough to reach the city’s shore, but a timeline was not offered, and details were scarce as to the location and size of the spill according to Chi.

Two hours later, Coast Guard officials estimated oil would reach the beach Monday. At that time, city officials say they still had very few details on the spill’s location and scope.

A half hour later, oil started swirling around against boats anchored for the air show.

Fifteen minutes later, Chi said the city received a report from a Newport Beach rescue vessel stating that “a large amount of oil was impacting the air show flight box (the area directly beneath the show).”

Huntington Beach sent out fire crews, Hazmat teams and the city’s oil spill response trailer to the Talbert Channel to defend against incoming oil.

At the same time those reports were coming in, the Coast Guard sent out a message to all boats in the area that they should prepare for Huntington Beach Harbor to close. The announcement was made once, and cancelled minutes later by the Coast Guard according to Chi. 

The Coast Guard then called the city and reaffirmed that they estimated oil wouldn’t hit their shores until Monday before 3:00 p.m, he said. 

Despite the Coast Guard’s assurances of the oil being at least two days out, Huntington Beach shut down the beach from the pier through the state beach at 5 p.m., getting everyone out of the water. 

Thirty minutes later, oil was reported 300 feet beyond the surfline.

HAZMAT crews try to stop the spread of oil near the Talbert Channel in Huntington Beach on Sunday, October 3, 2021(Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

By 7 p.m. it was hitting the shoreline. Twenty minutes later, the city posted on Twitter and Facebook that the city and state beaches were closed to the public. 

When asked by Voice of OC to provide additional evidence supporting the city’s timeline, Huntington Beach Press Information Officer Jennifer Carey said the only thing they received in writing from the Coast Guard was a tweet sent at noon warning the public about an oil spill three miles away from Newport Beach. 

“Most of our communication & the way we got information was by monitoring radio traffic & making multiple calls to various Coast Guard contacts & waiting for call backs,” Carey said in a text to Voice of OC Thursday morning. 

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Neither agency communicated with the public during those initial hours of response.  

During Saturday, the Coast Guard publicly posted twice online, announcing just after noon they were responding to an oil slick off the coast and again just before midnight Saturday that a unified command center had been set up to combat the spill.

Those updates provided no mention of the oil having already reached the shoreline hours earlier, or that the city of Huntington Beach was even an area that could be impacted. 

The city of Huntington Beach didn’t post that they were aware of the spill until nearly 4 p.m., and didn’t issue a beach closure warning anywhere other than on the shoreline until 7:20 Saturday night. 

This isn’t Orange County’s first experience with disruptive disaster communication.

A county grand jury took a look at the issue back in 2019 following a large wildfire in Anaheim Hills, and found most of Orange County was unprepared to deal with the communication hurdles that accompany any disaster.

“For some (public agencies), communicating vital emergency information to the public when interagency coordination is essential has not been a priority,” the report’s summary reads. “With the exception of one jurisdiction, there are no written standardized protocols among studied jurisdictions for issuing alerts and warnings.”

A year after that report was released, Orange County got hit by three different wildfires back to back, illustrating the same communication issues that public safety agencies had been warned about a year earlier.

Fires continue to burn by the 133 South toll road highway entrance. As of this morning, the fires have spread to 2000 acres per the Irvine Fire Dept. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Breakdowns in communications between agencies during the late 2020 fires led to conflicting evacuation orders and unclear instructions on where to evacuate to.

In the Silverado Canyon area, residents were forced to run door to door warning neighbors of the oncoming fire because Southern California Edison had cut power to the area in fears of a wildfire spark. 

[Read: Failure to Communicate: Orange County Wildfires Highlight Long Standing Emergency Communication Problems]

“This is history repeating itself of these mistakes being made and assuming the infrastructure we have is going to be fine,” said Jonathan Sury, a project director with the Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

OC officials’ efforts to get information on the oil spill to residents largely mirror their efforts during the pandemic — especially since December, when news conferences abruptly ended.

This year, residents have been largely in the dark on how the county is responding to curb COVID-19. Supervisors even ended their public pandemic updates at their regular meetings.

Sury said these types of breakdowns are common in disasters, and that without regular training public agencies won’t be prepared to address communication breakdowns.

“If individual agencies are doing their own thing and not sharing information openly and frequently, everyone is going to be running their own race and not in it together,” Sury said. 

“The stakes are high for these officials, and they need to make sure they’re practicing clear, concise information sharing that is matched across all agencies.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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