AP file photo
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a five-part series about a possible Cascadia subduction zone earthquake in Oregon and Washington.
Life will go on in Eastern Oregon if the dreaded Cascadia earthquake ever hits the Pacific Northwest. But it will not quickly return to normal.
It’s unclear how many refugees from the west side of the state will land in Umatilla County, but Joe Franell, CEO of Eastern Oregon Telecom and chair of the governor’s Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, said if half of the county’s 76,700 residents have family on the west side who come to stay with them, the county’s population could quickly double.
“If you look at what happened with (Hurricane) Katrina, where they landed is where they tended to stay,” he said of people fleeing the disaster. “I don’t know if we can house that many.”
At the same time, some people in Eastern Oregon would join one of the 50 nonprofits on the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters registry and head west to assist in cleanup efforts. Those with medical training can get pre-credentialed now with the State Emergency Registry of Volunteers to provide medical services.
The earthquake could prove crippling to some businesses, especially those that depend on shipping commodities to the west side of the state. But Umatilla County emergency manager Tom Roberts said other local businesses could see a boon from refugees, volunteers, media and government workers who would likely spend weeks in the county or at least pass through.
“With that increased population expectancy, the potential is if business owners are prepared, and if they’ve encouraged their employees to be prepared, there is a potential for them to see a windfall,” he said.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management HAS an emergency preparedness scorecard that helps businesses assess how resilient they would be in a natural disaster and asks the “tough questions” about whether they should reopen.
Roberts said that if owners and employees are personally prepared for a disaster, they will be able to return to work more quickly. The business also needs to have plans in place for communication and the possibility they may need to function for a while without electricity or internet (see sidebar).
Customers also need to be prepared for the fact that businesses may not immediately reopen, or may operate on a cash-only basis for a while after the disaster.
A month after the quake there would likely be more stability in meeting physical needs, but mental and emotional needs will also be present.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the city’s residents experienced increased rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety. Cascadia, with its destructive powers and aftershocks that will likely run for weeks, could produce similar effects.
Monique Dugaw, communications director for the Cascades region of the Red Cross, said the nonprofit has volunteer mental health professionals that it would call upon to help victims of Cascadia.
Steve Eberline, a preparedness presenter for Red Cross, said people will be in a better place mentally after a big disaster if they have discussed it, thought about it and prepared for it ahead of time.
“A family plan is part of psychologically preparing for the event,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it, because thinking of your child trapped at school across the river, it’s a tough conversation to have.”
He said his family keeps card games and books in their 72-hour kit, to provide a “sense of normalcy and comfort” if they had to live in a tent or emergency shelter for a while. The Red Cross also keeps toys for children in its emergency shelters.
As life begins to stabilize in eastern Oregon, organizations like school districts will have to figure out how to carry on in the face of a “new normal.”
Mike Kay, operations manager for Hermiston School District, participates in meetings for Umatilla County’s local emergency preparedness committee. He said the school district has relocation plans in place to evacuate students in the event of an emergency. It also plans to offer its buildings and staff as resources to the Red Cross, National Guard and other responders.
“We anticipate we, and any facilities we have, becoming readily available staging areas,” he said.
Kay said so far the district has been mostly focused on what would happen in the first month after Cascadia and hasn’t spent much time discussing how it would accommodate a large influx of children from the west side.
As the district has built new schools, it has built them to seismic standards. If Eastern Oregon only sees light shaking during Cascadia and its aftershocks, the damage to school buildings in Hermiston could be minimal. However, with variables such as time of year unknown, Kay said how soon school would start back up again is “the million dollar question.”
Other organizations have similar questions. Roberts said many of them have been invited to an all-day Cascadia Earthquake Preparedness Summit on May 12 to discuss “areas to work on” as the region continues to prepare for Cascadia.
“We don’t have all the answers yet, but we intend to start working on them this spring,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.