When a wind storm knocked out power to Hermiston last Saturday, it sent residents scurrying to nearby towns in search of food, fuel and Wi-Fi.
If the Cascadia earthquake hits, those same people who couldn’t last three hours without electricity will likely have to last several weeks without it.
No electricity. No internet. No landlines. No cell phone reception. No debit/credit card readers. No gasoline for sale.
That’s the prediction for Eastern Oregon residents if “the big one” hits, which seismologists at Oregon State University give about a one in three chance of happening in the next 50 years.
In Umatilla County, a collection of nonprofit and government entities keep chipping away at preparations year after year.
“It goes back to what we preach to the citizens,” Umatilla County emergency manager Tom Roberts said. “The more prepared you are, the less others have to worry about you. The same goes for the counties, the more prepared the they are the less the state has to worry about us.”
Some progress has been made since a summit last May brought various public and private leaders together to discuss earthquake preparations. Recently the ham radio equipment in the county’s emergency management center was modified so that the county now has the ability to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 10 office in Bothell, Washington, and other federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security directly in the event that the Oregon Emergency Management command center is down.
It very well could be if Cascadia strikes. According to a state audit released in January, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management’s command center is not seismically retrofitted, meaning there’s a good chance it could collapse or be damaged in a quake. There are three alternative sites identified, but two of those are also at risk of collapse, and OEM has not practiced running a command center out of any of them.
The audit also found that only two-thirds of state agencies have a plan for continuity of operations should catastrophe strike, and far fewer have actually trained staff on the plans.
“Without these plans in place,” the audit warns, “Oregon’s government is at serious risk of failing to continue with or reestablish its key operations following a catastrophic event.”
Even if the county can communicate with the state during a catastrophe, area Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES/RACES) coordinator Alan Polan said FEMA may still want to communicate directly with Umatilla County to get a better idea of damage and resources.
“It helps FEMA have better situational awareness,” Polan said. “... The government will be trying to figure out how to get the most bang for their buck in terms of response.”
Local ham radio operators are participating in exercises with FEMA the third Wednesday of each month so that they’ll know just what to do in the event of a real emergency.
In the past year the county has also worked to build more partnerships with church groups and nonprofits that could mobilize in the event of a disaster. On Wednesday Roberts was meeting with Mike West of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit collection of mostly veterans, retired law enforcement and retired medical personnel who respond to disasters. In the past the organization has been focused on responding to national and international disasters like hurricanes, but Team Rubicon recently helped clean up a flooded farm outside of Milton-Freewater, and West said they have become interested in having local chapters respond to more local challenges.
“It gives people a great opportunity to come and serve,” he said, noting that he would like to start having at least one event a month in order to help build a sense of community among area volunteers and help them gain experience that could come in handy during a larger disaster.
Roberts said Team Rubicon could provide some “fantastic capacities” for the county in the event of a disaster, from physical labor to helping manage “spontaneous volunteers” who often show up to help with a disaster without training or affiliation.
“They can help backfill staff, do mitigation,” Roberts said. “Those are areas a lot of emergency managers lose sleep at night wondering, ‘How am I going to do that?’”
Roberts said after the Cascadia summit last year several church groups also reached out to him, as well as businesses.
Cities that participated in the summit are also doing a good job of starting to prepare for a Cascadia-level event, he said, citing Pendleton and Weston as two examples.
“I really have to say Weston’s been doing a bang-up job in putting together an emergency management committee and promoting some resiliency in their small community,” he said.
He also cited the work of the Local Emergency Preparedness Committee, made up of local industries handling large amounts of hazardous materials. They are legally required to meet in committee, he said, but Umatilla County’s group has been cited as a “flagship” example in the state of going above and beyond what is required in planning for a disaster. They recently received a grant to host some tabletop training exercises with Dean Marcum, who specializes in designing such exercises.
“That’s a fantastic group of people,” Roberts said.
Nobody can predict for sure when an earthquake will hit, but the county did know exactly when the area would experience a total solar eclipse in August. The large influx of people to Eastern Oregon was used to draw lessons from that could be used for a much larger influx of people from the west side of the state in the event of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast.
Roberts said the hours-long back-up of traffic on Highway 11 and north Interstate 82 caused everyone to realize some planning needed to happen.
“I knew we were going to be hit, but it hit harder than I thought,” he said. “I thought, ‘If we have a disaster, we’re going to have the reverse, with people flowing into the county.”
As much as the state and county are working to prepare, Roberts said there are still many, many things that need to be done. And those things are hindered by short staffing and low funding, put off in favor of more immediate needs.
As a result, citizens need to realize that in the event of a disaster they can’t count on immediate assistance with their needs. The Pacific Northwest could look a lot like Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that is still without power and basic necessities in some areas a full five months after Hurricane Maria. That’s why everyone should have a kit in their house that would allow them to live for at least two weeks without electricity or outside supplies.
“We’re never going to be 100 percent prepared for an event like Cascadia, but we try to be as resilient as possible,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.