By Isabella Zizi | Photo by David Meza
It was around 3:00 in the afternoon when I was sitting in my room preparing for my evening shift at work when I heard a siren go off. Within seconds my mind triggered: Is it Wednesday morning? No, it is Tuesday, August 16 and it is the afternoon.
My immediate thought was that there had been another explosion at Chevron and that I needed to document it. As much as I was putting my health at risk by going outside, I needed proof. I started recording on my phone. A friend of mine who lives on 3rd Street texted me, “Do you hear the Chevron alarm?” I looked up at the sky for any unusual smoke, and took deep breaths for that distinct smell. Strangely, I discovered neither.
Richmond residents know that every first Wednesday of the month around 11:00 a.m., the county tests its Community Warning System siren to make sure it works. When the siren goes off for real, it’s a signal that people need to shelter in place.
My neighbors yelled out to one another, “Is that the Chevron siren? What time is it?”
Once I heard the siren, it gave me a flashback of when I was a child. It was mandatory for all students in Richmond to do a “shelter in place” drill. We had a donation box for any rugged old towels or t-shirts to take home with us. Our teachers were very serious when it came to this information. If at school, we were asked to hide under our desks and stay in our classrooms until further notice. If we were at home, we were asked to shut every window and door and to immediately cover any seeping cracks or crevices with those old towels or t-shirts. We were strictly informed not to go outside; and if we did, it was important to cover our mouths and protect our eyes so we wouldn’t be affected by whatever was in the air.
At that age, I didn’t understand why it was so important. I always thought “shelter in place” was for tornados, earthquakes, or floods.
Now, as I heard the siren go off, I felt like I was a curious kid again, wanting to ask numerous questions, hoping to seek answers to help me understand what was going on. How the fossil fuel industry works, how it is supposed to support us and our future, what its purpose is, what happens if that siren malfunctions again – but this time when we actually need it.
In his e-forum, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt remarked that since the mid 1990s, the sirens have never worked as intended. “Much of it is due to flaws in the system design and management,” he wrote.
Later in the day, the Richmond Police Department tweeted, “If you heard the warning siren within the last 30 minutes, it was an error. There is no emergency.”
I decided to call the city and raise my concerns about what was going on. The only answer I received was that it was accidental and they are figuring out what caused it to go off, but it is nothing to worry about and that we can come out of “shelter in place.”
This doesn’t fully process in my mind. Since I was a kid, I was trained to respond every time the sirens went off. There is an immediate fear when I hear them, and in those moments, questions start rattling off in my head. “What is happening now?” “What triggered that siren to go off?” “How can a siren be accidental?”
Many of us remember August 6, 2012. That was the day the Chevron Refinery had an explosion because of old piping that had not been maintained. I remember those sirens didn’t go off until 15 minutes after the smoke had covered the sky and sent thousands of residents to the hospital.
We also remember June 20, 2016, the day residents noticed unusual flaring and no sirens went off at all. They told us it was just “casual flaring” and nothing to worry about.
When you live in a low-income community in the shadows of Chevron, you fear the worst. Every single day we have to ask ourselves, “When is another explosion going to happen?” “If we have to evacuate, where else can we go? What other area is left that we can afford?”
Later that evening, the East Bay Times reported that workers at the refinery had accidentally set off the sirens when they were testing the warning system. So they were testing it, yet it was accidently triggered? They still aren’t telling us exactly how the siren was triggered. Is it a button? Is it motion? This is something that the county and the Chevron refinery need to fully explain to all Richmond residents — and not just on their website. We are not just a community; we are a family and we need to know the truth and get answers to our questions. It is not only our lives at risk; it is also our pets, plants, water, and our homes – it’s everything we have to live for, and all we are told is it was just an “accident.”