ATWATER — Emergency disaster preparedness was the focal point of a high-flying rendezvous Wednesday morning between acting Secretary Mike Dayton of the California Emergency Management Agency and Merced County officials. The tour included a flight over Merced County in the department's Huey helicopter, piloted by Undersheriff Tom Cavallero.
Sheriff Mark Pazin, who also serves on the state's Alfred E. Alquist Seismic Safety Commission, was there to give Dayton a tour of Castle, the former Air Force base that closed in 1995, which they think could serve as regional center for disaster relief.
The tour included a flight over Merced County in the department's Huey helicopter, piloted by Undersheriff Tom Cavallero.
"Merced County is uniquely qualified with having Castle here in the Central Valley as a jumping-off point to bring in supplies and resources in case of any natural or man-made disasters," Pazin said.
The site could also serve as a regional center for fire training, he added.
Wednesday's meeting was meant to gain another perspective on reaching an alliance with emergency services, Pazin said.
"We are uniquely positioned geographically to respond north, south, east or west," Pazin said. "We need to go ahead and identify the certain items we can do, either through fire resources or law enforcement."
Dayton, who grew up in Oakdale and worked as Rep. Gary Condit's legislative director, said he came to tour Castle's facilities to learn more about how the area could be used for emergency situations. "At the state level, we're looking for any way to be more efficient," Dayton said. "Obviously, emergency management and homeland security is a team sport — it's a team effort that relies on strong partnerships."
Dayton thinks Castle could serve as an appropriate staging area if a disaster occurs. "Geographically, it makes sense," he said. "Obviously, this is the center. We have earthquake hazards up and down the coast, but certainly in the Bay Area. We have risk for catastrophic floods just north of here."
Castle would serve as a central point to provide relief for those types of disasters, Dayton said.
For example, if a natural disaster displaced people in the Bay Area, they could be brought over and temporarily housed at Castle, he noted. "If there's a catastrophe in the Bay Area, there will be mass evacuations, there will be relocations," Dayton said. "People will be coming, so that's why we really need the Central Valley to be part of the planning efforts."
Dayton later joined other regional law enforcement and fire officials at the Merced Women's Club. Some agencies present included sheriff's officials from Kings, Madera and Mariposa counties, Cal Fire, the Atwater, Merced and Los Banos police departments, and the Merced City Fire Department.
At this point, no county money is committed to help Castle develop into an emergency staging area, said Merced County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Pedrozo, who joined Pazin and Dayton on the tour. Right now, officials are just analyzing the possibilities.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.