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Why can't I find emergency maps all in one place?

Commuters drive under heavy rainfall in Los Angeles, California on March 21, 2018.
Commuters drive under heavy rainfall in Los Angeles, California on March 21, 2018.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

This week, KPCC has been answering your questions about the most recent Southern California storm. This storm may be over now, but more rain will hit the area sooner or later. And that got one of our audience members wondering — why is it so hard to find out what's going on both where you live and where you work?

Q: Why can't I find standardized emergency preparedness maps spanning multiple counties in one place?

This question came to us via Facebook from Susan Nelson. She lives in the city of Ventura, but works at a computer software company in Carpinteria.

During recent fires and storms, she's been trying to find out what to expect as she crosses the Santa Barbara/Ventura county line during her commute.

"My dilemma, when I'm deciding whether or not to drive to work or work from home, is I have to look in two places. And the data is very different in how it's being presented," Nelson said.

Nelson wondered why she needs to visit two different websites (vcemergency.com and readysbc.org) to find emergency preparedness maps showing things like evacuation zones and debris flow risk areas. For residents like her who straddle two counties, couldn't that information be merged and posted in one convenient location?

"Particularly when people are largely using their phones, it's kind of a lot of work to go to three or four different websites to cull the information you need," Nelson said.

A: It's complicated

Robert Lewin, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Santa Barbara County, said Nelson's idea was great... in theory. But current emergency response protocols would make it difficult to maintain that kind of centralized resource.

"All emergencies are local," Lewin said. "The initial response to any emergency is always done by the local entity."

Lewin said counties are responsible for issuing evacuations and maintaining public safety only within their jurisdictions. They don't have the expertise to inform residents beyond their borders, and are reluctant to take on the responsibility. And that's why his county's emergency maps cut off at the county line Nelson crosses each day just north of La Conchita.

Captain Garo Kuredjian with the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said a map depicting multi-county regions might help residents like Nelson. But that map could end being too broad to be useful for most residents.

"By putting so much information in one spot, a lot of it will be completely irrelevant to a majority of people," Kuredjian said.

Most people aren't interested in emergency preparedness maps of neighboring counties, he said — they only want to know what's happening in their back yard. If Ventura County started including Santa Barbara County in the maps it pushes out to the public, then why not Los Angeles County too?

"It would be information overload," Kuredjian said. He said any effort to map wider areas would have to be undertaken by the state.

Lewin said counties could do a better job of standardizing their maps across the state, though. That way residents wouldn't have to decipher different mapping systems used in different regions. And if those maps were standardized, he said, maybe they could be plugged into one, user-friendly site.

"If we were to create a website that was accessible by all 58 counties, there would be value in that," Lewin said.