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City disaster plans are still a bit shaky

Ten years after 9/11, Portland prepares, but there are some gaps
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Mayor Sam Adams talked about the importance of disaster planning at a Tuesday press conference kicking off National Preparedness Month.

September is National Preparedness Month, and Portland officials are holding a series of events to help residents get ready for emergencies. They include Tuesday's announcement that portions of city parks are being designated as staging areas for trained volunteers during disasters.

'Recent earthquakes in Japan and Washington, D.C. - as well as Hurricane Irene flooding much of the East Coast this past weekend - underscore the unpredictable and destructive nature of disasters,' Mayor Sam Adams says. 'Japan's aftermath, in particular, taught us how public parks have become an instinctive place for neighbors to gather when their homes are damaged.'

It wasn't this way 10 years ago. When terrorists attacked New York City's Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Portland did not have an up-to-date emergency management plan. The city's 1997 Terrorism Response Plan was supposed to have been updated that May, but the new version was still being written and was not scheduled to be adopted for another four months.

Ten years later, Portland is better - but still not fully - prepared to respond to a terrorist attack. The City Council finally approved a detailed response plan in January. It is part of a comprehensive series of plans intended to govern the city's response to a wide range of natural and man-made disasters, including floods and earthquakes.

Portland is on track to improve its disaster response operations in coming years. Work begins soon on the city's first permanent Emergency Coordination Center, funded by the public safety ballot measure approved by the voters last November. It will be built next to the existing Bureau of Emergency Communication complex in far Southeast Portland.

The city could soon secure its first maintenance and staging yard for heavy equipment on the west side of the Willamette River, potentially relocating some equipment now based only in east Portland. The U.S. Department of Defense is close to approving the city's request to transfer ownership of the site, the Sgt. Jerome Sears U.S. Army Reserve Center in Southwest Portland.

'We've made a lot of progress since 9/11, but we still have a long way to go,' Adams says.

Future work includes council approval of the final parts of the Basic Emergency Operations Plan recommended by the federal government. As part of that effort, city agencies are identifying their essential services and adopting plans to ensure their continued operations during disasters.

The city needs to prepare a master plan to renovate the reserve center into a maintenance and staging yard. After that, funds must be secured to complete the work, including the construction of the city's first westside fueling station.

'A westside equipment staging area has been a goal of mine ever since 9/11, and I saw the gridlock that occurred on New York's bridges, even though they weren't damaged,' says Adams.

Audit highlighted gaps

As recently as May 2010, it was still possible to question how much progress Portland had made in preparing for a large-scale disaster. That was when a city audit found troubling gaps in Portland's preparedness work. The council created the Portland Office of Emergency Management in 2003 to oversee and coordinate the city's disaster planning and response efforts. But the audit found that after seven years, the city's basic emergency operations plan was still out of date and many city bureaus did not have a clear understanding of their roles during emergencies.

In fact, the audit had been requested by Adams, who is in charge of POEM, and its director, Carmen Merlo. She had been hired in February 2007 as POEM's fifth director, a sign of startup difficulties it had experienced.

'I knew there were some problems when I was first hired and requested an audit then, but it took two years before it was scheduled,' says Merlo.

When the audit was released, Merlo promised Adams she would make progress addressing its findings within a year. A major step occurred in June, when the council approved changes to the City Charter clarifying the relationship between POEM and other agencies, both when planning for and responding to emergencies.

Merlo expects to have all of the other plans identified as incomplete in the audit approved by the council by the end of the year.

Aging equipment

The biggest transition for POEM lies ahead, however. It is headquartered in an old downtown office building near City Hall. Merlo says the building could easily be damaged in an earthquake or other disaster, hampering the agency's ability to respond.

During an emergency, key POEM and other public safety officials are supposed to relocate to the existing Emergency Coordination Center to help coordinate the city's response. But according to Merlo, the center is little more than a couple of classrooms in the Bureau of Emergency Communication complex near Southeast 92nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard.

'Simply getting out there will be a challenge during a disaster. Than you've got to set up the room, hook up computers and get it up and running. All that will take at least a couple of hours,' says Merlo.

The answer is for Merlo to permanently relocate into a new Emergency Communications Center to be built next to the BOEC complex. Although it has been planned for years, the project took a major step forward when Portland voters approved the $74.2 million public safety ballot measure in the 2010 general election. It included $4 million to help construct the new center. The council had already committed the remainder of the center's estimated $17.6 million cost.

Merlo says the new center will include state of the art emergency management equipment, including back-up power sources. Construction is expected to begin early next year and be completed in mid-2013. POEM will relocate to the center when it is completed, helping ensure the city's response to natural and man-made disasters.

The measure also provides $19.8 million to replace aging firefighting equipment, $7.9 million for a new fire station at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, and nearly $40 million to replace the city's Emergency Radio System. All the purchases could prove critical in a future emergency.


In a disaster, you are the first responder

During a major natural or man-made disaster, city officials are counting on you to help your neighbors.

The city has adopted a Basic Emergency Operations Plan that outlines which agencies will respond to various levels of emergencies, including flood, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. For example, the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire and Rescue are charged with responding to chemical, biological, nuclear and explosive devices. They will be joined by the Portland Bureau of Transportation in the event of an earthquake.

But preparedness officials also know the agencies will concentrate on the dangers that threaten the most people, meaning that many neighborhoods will be on their own.

Because of that, the city has long offered training for Neighborhood Emergency Teams.

'Past disaster statistics show that 80 percent of all rescues are performed by untrained citizens,' according to the program's promotional material.

POEM offers the program to anyone 14 or older. At least 1,200 people have received 24 hours of training in seven classroom sessions and a final exercise.

Classes are held several times a year on weeknights and Saturday mornings.

Information on emergency preparedness is available on the Portland Office of Emergency Management's website, with recommendation for survival kits and responding to specific disasters. The site is portlandonline.com/oem.