A focus on recovery

Sacramento International delivers a standard for disaster management


Sacramento International Airport (SMF) is a transportation hub for Northern California handling some 30 flights by 12 airline carriers during peak hours. The airport is also located on a 6,000-acre parcel of land eight miles from the meeting of the levee-lined Sacramento and American Rivers — a region ranking at the top of the country’s most flood-prone cities. Sacramento County, taking heed of the levee failure brought on by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, contracted Faith Group, LLC to aid in an operations relocation plan for the possibility of catastrophic flooding.

Comments Tony Bizjak of the Sacramento Bee, “Should levees fail along the nearby Sacramento and American Rivers, it would take only 12 to 18 hours for all paved roads to Sacramento International Airport to be covered by a foot of water.”

Michael La Pier, SMF operations manager echoes Bizjak’s concern, “[An] inland lake could inundate runways and airport grounds, impacting the airport to the point that it would not be able to function.”

As the state capital of California, it is critical that Sacramento have an operating airfield in the event of a major flood disaster within the Natomas Basin Levee system, relates Faith Varwig of Faith Group, a planning and consulting company based in St. Louis, MO.

The company has supplied Incident Command System (ICS)training at the Portland and Freeport International airports; disaster drill training at Cleveland Hopkins; emergency planning at T.F. Green airport; and now, a first comprehensive COOP (Continuity of Operations Plan) for SMF. The project took 18 months to complete at a cost of $324,000.

Before 9/11, relates Varwig, “You didn’t really see many airports put a specific focus on disaster management. Whatever was in the AEP (airport emergency plan) was what people went with; that is, planning for a subscribed list of events required to attain Part 139 certification, and that’s really as far as it went.

“Post-9/11 people started looking at the adequacy of those kinds of plans.”

Faith Group project manager Heidi Benaman says Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also woke everyone up. “Particularly, the city of Sacramento started to really pay attention to flood planning,” she says. “The airport, being a critical part of the state capital’s infrastructure, wanted to be proactive and have a plan.”

“[Sacramento’s] plan really encompassed completely moving operations to another off site location. I think this is the first time that’s ever been considered as part of an operations continuity plan — actually picking up operations and moving them for an extended period of time to what would be considered as a reliever facility,” explains Varwig.

“It was a fascinating project, and the great thing is all of the airlines and the third party service providers were behind the airport 100 percent.”

Designating Mather

A first step in planning was determining where SMF operations would be relocated should a major flood event occur. Mather Airport, a decommissioned U.S. Air Force Base located some 17 miles southeast of SMF, became the designated emergency commercial airport for the region.

Mather is one of four airports operated by the Sacramento County Airport System; its 70-foot elevation above sea level reduces the probability of submersion in a catastrophic flood event.

“Mather really came out to be the best choice,” remarks Benaman. “The plan we came up with was to bring in temporary structures at Mather; there is no terminal structure there, and there is a massive amount of pavement.”

Everything about the operation at Mather was going to be fairly manual, relates Benaman. No baggage systems; limited on site car rentals; and getting people to and from the airport would be a challenge because there isn’t the access and egress that is typical at a commercial airport operation.

“We had a couple different options for busing people in and out; we encouraged alternate dropoff or parking locations, making it easier to bring people in systematically from off site locations,” says Benaman.

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