Despite all its education outreach and preparation, its studies and research, Oregon is not ready for catastrophic disasters, an audit released by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson last week indicates.
“We all know Oregon faces a massive threat from a Cascadia earthquake and tsunami,” Richardson said. “The only thing we don’t know is when. It’s critical we act now to better prepare our state to survive … all catastrophic disasters.”
Curry County got a glimpse of one of those disasters in last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire that burned 191,125 acres of land in the backcountry. The fire burned homes, forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and came within 5 miles of the city of Brookings.
While Curry County is vulnerable to an array of natural disasters — wildfire, tsunami, flooding, landslides and others — the one with the most potential to kill will begin when the Cascadia Fault, 30 miles and parallel to the coast, slips. It hasn’t done so in 318 years, and pressure behind the plates is believed to increase with every passing year.
If it “rips” all at once, producing an 8.0 to 9.0 magnitude quake, the entire coastline from Mendocino, California to British Columbia is anticipated to be devastated. Ports will be destroyed. Untold tens of thousands will likely perish. Infrastructure — possibly all the way inland to Interstate 5 — will lie in ruins. There is a reason the regional staging area for this event is based in Boise, Idaho.
The massive fault line was only discovered in the 1940s; subsequent research resulted in the preparation of recovering from the inevitable — making people and communities more resilient to catastrophes of any sort.
“A Cascadia earthquake and tsunami is expected to have catastrophic consequences throughout the region,” Richardson said. “The audit found that state and local governments don’t meet key standards for being prepared to respond to such events.”
Auditors conducted a survey of state agencies and local emergency management programs to evaluate catastrophic event preparation efforts. They also interviewed Office of Emergency Management (OEM) staff and those in other agencies, researched programs in other states and assessed emergency management program standards.
The audit includes 11 recommendations to the OEM and governor’s office that include completing, implementing and exercising emergency and continuity plans; meeting minimum emergency management program standards; reporting on efforts to improve state resilience; defining roles and responsibilities; and assessing and filling gaps in resources.
Curry County Emergency Services Director Jeremy Dumire faces the same challenges as the state — a shortage of staff and money.
Much work has gone into retrofitting bridges, schools and other public buildings. New technology enables scientists and citizens to better evaluate the land that could liquify in a massive quake. Emergency meeting sites have been established, a huge interagency mock scenario was held last year at the Cape Blanco Airport and medical items have been stockpiled in giant containers in strategic locations.
And much of those elements were tested — interagency cooperation and use of the Emergency Operations Center in Brookings — during the Chetco Bar Fire last summer. Most processes worked well, officials agreed, and the massive wildfire also pointed out shortcomings in the response system from which people can learn.
But zoning here still allows people to build in flood zones — even Curry General Hospital board members in 2014 opted to “acknowledge” but ignore updated tsunami maps that placed the new hospital site in a tsunami zone. Some people confess ignorance about the fault line offshore and all but three of Curry County’s 17 tsunami sirens don’t work, and parts are unobtainable, Dumire said.
Richardson said the audit indicates the problems are more endemic statewide.
“Oregon doesn’t meet key emergency management program standards,” the audit reads. “The national baseline standards are a tool to strengthen preparedness and response, demonstrate accountability and identify resource needs.”
Other shortfalls include emergency management system planning and “critical continuity plans” that ensure government services will work in the wake of a disaster are “either missing or incomplete,” the audit reads. Insufficient staff resources put the state at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal grant-funding for future disasters.
The Office of Emergency Management is particularly understaffed, the audit reports, despite repeated requests for additional money from the legislature. And more accountability is needed to ensure progress on preparedness goals and projects, and to enhance public awareness.
Dumire, who has only had his job for the past few months, is rapidly gearing up to coordinate all the emergency groups in the county. He wants each to at least know the others exist and what they do and how they can work together.
Education has taken the forefront, as officials at the county level sign residents up for cellphone and computer emergency alerts, encourage people to make “go bags” for use if they become stranded and remind people what to do when the shaking begins.
But right now?
“I’m it,” Dumire said. “We don’t have a planner, we don’t have a lot of things; we just have me.”
Lately, he’s been working with Del Norte County on getting residents to take the Community Emergency Response Team certification courses.
A magnitude 8.0 or 9.0 quake will be devastating. And those who survive had better be able to get by, likely for several weeks, before definitive help arrives. Curry County, it has been noted, will likely not be high on the list of priorities to help when ports such as Seattle, Portland and Coos Bay are demolished.
“Damage is going to be incredible,” Dumire said. “But the after-effect of the whole event — after the event passes, after we lose our infrastructure, how to get everyone’s needs met for the next couple weeks — if our response isn’t fast enough, we’ll have a longer disaster.”
Two plans at the state level need to be updated, the audit said, including the National Hazards Mitigation and Emergency Operations plans. The Preparedness plan is incomplete, and the recovery plan is written but hasn’t been finalized.
Curry County will update its emergency operations plan in a couple of years, and Dumire hopes to incorporate a recovery plan, as well.
He’s applying for grants for an array of needs here, including the replacement of the emergency responder radio system — including the transmission towers that are close to the end of their lifespans — and an Emergency Operations Center that can serve the entire county.
“There’s been great progress, but there’s always more to do,” Dumire said. “We’re not 100 percent, but at least we have a good framework.”