When the Cascadia earthquake devastates the Pacific Northwest, the government has a plan. The question is where Eastern Oregon communities will fit in.
“Are we going to be the responders or the victims?” Irrigon city manager Aaron Palmquist asked.
Palmquist was one of the city leaders, educators, first responders, religious leaders, health care professionals, business owners and others who gathered in Pendleton on Friday for a Cascadia preparedness summit to discuss that very question. After listening to speakers from state and federal agencies, break-out groups met to discuss what steps their organizations could take to increase emergency preparedness.
Some of those plans can be put through a trial run in August, when as many as a million people are expected to flock to Oregon to experience a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.
The flood of people who will descend on small Eastern Oregon cities then will in some ways mimic the refugees from the west side of the state who will flood into the same areas after Cascadia, overwhelming resources like hotels and gas stations. Communities and businesses are encouraged to use the lessons learned from the eclipse to strengthen their ability to respond to refugees from Cascadia.
“We’re treating the eclipse like a disaster, and activating the emergency coordination center as an exercise,” Oregon Office of Emergency Management director Andrew Phelps said.
The picture Phelps and other speakers painted of Cascadia’s aftermath is one where Eastern Oregon may escape much of the bridge-collapsing, building-demolishing physical power of Cascadia but will still be without services such as electricity, cell phone service, landlines, internet connections, banking and fuel for weeks that will in many cases stretch into months.
In those conditions, it will take a while for government resources such as food and medicine to reach communities, and the priority will be sending those resources farther west to the areas of destruction. That means Eastern Oregon families should make it a goal to build up supplies to be able to shelter in place for two weeks without assistance, and then possibly to help neighbors who can’t afford to build up that kind of resource. For those who want to be prepared but don’t have the financial resources to stockpile food and water, Phelps encouraged them to learn survival skills like first aid so they can contribute in other ways during a disaster.
”You are all the first responders,” he said.
After people prepare their families, the next step should be helping their workplace — be it a small business, a hospital or city hall — prepare. Umatilla County emergency manager Tom Roberts praised the city of Weston for starting an emergency management committee, which Weston mayor Jennifer Spurgeon said has been tasked with creating an emergency management plan for the city that will put up-to-date information all in one place for the community to take action in the event of a disaster.
Eastern Oregon Telecom CEO Joseph Franell, who emceed the day-long event, noted that Hermiston’s fire and police departments are storing emergency food and water not only for their employees but also the employees’ families, so that officers, EMTs and others feel comfortable enough about their families’ situation to come to work during a disaster.
Law enforcement and fire services were two of the subjects of the 90-minute break-out sessions during the afternoon. Pendleton police chief Stuart Roberts said his group talked about the need for continued training and coordination on the “significant challenges” their departments will face in providing traffic management and security in an environment with no electricity, limited forms of communication and a huge influx of both refugees and responders.
The fire services group noted the strong collaboration that went on during the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) and the need to build on those relationships and communications structures to prepare for Cascadia.
Casey White-Zollman said the education group talked about teaching students emergency preparedness principles and sending home information for their families. They also talked about doing seismic upgrades to school buildings where possible and creating plans for how to secure campuses in situations where refugees are pouring into the area.
Participants from the health care group discussed ways to encourage employee preparedness and beef up emergency communication capabilities via ham radio. Many hospitals have generators for power, group members said, but still need to make plans for having the water necessary to continue operation if the city’s water system is not working.
They also discussed creating special staffing schedules to be used in the event of a mass disaster, encouraging more people to pre-register as certified emergency medical volunteers and finding volunteers to help with paperwork when computer systems are inaccessible. Lastly, they discussed creating a plan for using agricultural cold storage facilities as emergency morgues if needed.
Hermiston Assembly of God pastor Terry Haight said the faith-based group discussed having churches take an inventory of what they may be able to offer up immediately during Cascadia in the form of space and manpower.
“Churches are the most under-utilized piece of real estate in your community,” he said.
They also discussed the need to encourage their parishioners to prepare for emergencies now, and to create easily activated networks of volunteers with skills such as construction work and counseling.
The communications group discussed the need to assess and plan for communication in a Cascadia situation. The discussion went as high-tech as ham radio and satellite internet and as low-tech as daily paper bulletins posted at city hall and sending messages between cities via horseback after the state’s fuel supply is wiped out by Cascadia.
The economic impacts group discussed using chambers of commerce to provide workshops and other training for local business owners on how to be resilient in an emergency. That training could include what to look for in an insurance policy, maintaining security without electricity and how to decide which components of the business are “critical functions.”
The city managers and mayors discussed the need to go through cycles of assessing, planning and training to keep the city functioning in the event of a disaster.
Videos of the summit, copies of presenters’ Powerpoint presentations and each group’s list of “next steps” will be available on Blue Mountain Community College’s website later in the week.
“Remember, this is just the beginning of the work we have ahead of us,” Franell said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.