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Bracing for `the big one’

November 12, 2005

Hood River County officials believe they are ready for a small-scale disaster – it’s the “big one” they worry about.

“If we have an isolated incident, we’re in great shape. We can take care of these little three-four day things. It’s a major incident that we need to work on,” said Sheriff Joe Wampler.

He delivered that message to Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, on Tuesday. Wampler joined 25 other government leaders and police, fire and medical personnel at the emergency management forum.

“What we don’t want is a disaster upon a disaster. So, from the state level, I just want to make sure that we’re all ready,” said Smith.

She and Cascade Locks Fire Chief Jeff Pricher organized the meeting to “build bridges” of communication. Smith felt that Pricher’s hands-on experience in New Orleans with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would provide valuable insight into the dialogue.

Officials from Hood River, Wasco and Multnomah counties were invited to share their perspectives on how to avoid the post-Katrina chaos that reigned in Louisiana.

Although Smith said it was improbable that a hurricane will ever sweep through the Gorge, the area has its own potential for disaster. She said communities in the scenic corridor could be faced with a severe earthquake, dam breach, terrorist action or an outbreak of disease.

“The event on the Gulf Coast has only emphasized how important it is to be prepared. So, we’re lucky to have a window of time to see what we can do” said Metsger.

He was recently appointed to the Senate Interoperability Council to review the communications system for emergency response agencies. Smith has been appointed to the Joint Emergency Preparedness Committee to ensure the state has fully equipped responders for all possible scenarios.

Local officials informed Smith and Metsger that a good communication network was essential during a catastrophic event. Wampler said the Gorge terrain posed a problem in that area since cell phone coverage frequently dropped off in the rugged terrain. He said National Scenic Area restrictions and other state land-use regulations made it difficult for new cell towers to be installed to overcome the problem.

Pricher said it was just as vital that all agencies “be on the same page” with a response plan. He said there needed to be more training on National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) procedures. According to Pricher, NIMS was created to coordinate response actions taken by local, state and federal governments during a crisis.

He said the disorder in New Orleans following Katrina was largely the result of a failure of government leaders at all levels to follow that plan. However, Pricher acknowledged that it would be difficult to eliminate turmoil during a disaster of that magnitude. When the area about the size of Oregon was decimated by the storm, he said thousands of patients and displaced citizens needed help at the same time – which completely overwhelmed rescuers.

“We need to be sure that we’re well coordinated between the different counties and jurisdictions,” said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Pricher said the Forest Service played an essential role in New Orleans by setting up in incident command post to coordinate actions. He said the federal agency is experienced in wildland firefighting, which often requires coordinating the efforts of multiple jurisdictions. And that, he said, could prove a valuable asset in any scenario that played out in the Gorge.

“The Forest Service has the manpower and the know-how to get things done,” said Pricher.

Gorge officials identified another potential problem for a ready response. They informed Metsger and Smith that mutual-aid agreement did not exist between the border counties in Oregon and Washington.

Without that agreement in place, they said any responder from Oregon faced potential liability for involvement in the neighboring state’s problem.

“We can sit in Hood River and watch a large wildland fire in White Salmon and we can’t go there,” said Hood River Assistant Fire Chief Devon Wells.

Ellen Larsen, director of the county Health Department, said many medical certifications granted in Oregon weren’t considered valid in Washington. Therefore, she said these officials faced the same liability problems as firefighters and law enforcement authorities.

“It’s not exactly as if my knowledge stops at the Columbia River,” said Larsen. “I think this issue is a real time bomb.”

The state legislators agreed that they couldn’t envision a disaster in the Gorge that didn’t involve both states. And that issue needed to be explored further for a resolution.

“We have all been prepared for a terrorist attack but we really weren’t ready for Mother Nature (Gulf Coast disaster) and that potential needs to be given more consideration,” said Wells.

All of the emergency response agencies agreed that citizens also played an active role in disaster relief. They wanted to see more educational programs about the need for preparations at home. For example, they said many New Orleans residents hadn’t heeded the warning to have a three-day food and water supply on hand. And that was about the amount of time it took to get an evacuation operation in full swing.

“A statewide response would be centered on the Willamette Valley because of the population base and we would have to wait,” said Wells.

Smith handed each official a questionnaire and asked them to fill it out within the next few weeks. Her survey asked what emergencies they felt most needed to be addressed in the Gorge and what goals and strategies should be in place to deal with those scenarios. Smith also requested that all participants name the top three emergency preparedness issues that faced the state.

“On a small level we’re good to go. But for something larger we need more time, practice and money,” said Wells.

“I think a large part of a successful response is just knowing each other and that’s why I think these forums are a good thing to have,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

Larsen shared concerns with Metsger and Smith that any directive that came out of the state be tied to funding for its implementation.

“Our requirements for training and how the money should be spent are increasing – but the funds are decreasing. It’s going the wrong direction,” said Larsen.

Smith and Metsger both agreed that any mandates from the Oregon Legislature should be accompanied by a check to cover the costs.

“I think that you gave us a lot of food for thought about things that we can do. And we will have further discussions about these issues when we get the feedback from the survey and have developed some new ideas,” said Smith.

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