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Preparing for a post-Cascadia world

Lake Oswego staff and emergency responders practice how to handle the aftermath of a major earthquake

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - City officials staff Lake Oswego's Emergency Operations Center in the downtown fire station during Cascadia Rising, a four-day simulation of the aftermath of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.It’s just after 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and 20 people are crowded around a conference room table in Lake Oswego’s main fire station. Roughly 30 hours earlier, the entire Pacific Northwest had been struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake, and emergency calls are coming in constantly from all over the city.

A building has collapsed at Mary’s Woods. Landslides are blocking Kerr Parkway and Highway 43. The dam at Hagg Lake in Hillsboro has ruptured, sending floodwaters surging down the Tualatin River and toward Oswego Lake. And it’s up to this group of City staff and volunteers to coordinate response efforts and make sure all resources are accounted for.

They pore over computers and whiteboards, maps and messages, keeping tabs on people and places that need help.

“Welcome,” Lake Oswego Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk says, “to the world of disaster.”

‘A step toward resiliency’

That was the scene at the Emergency Operations Center in downtown Lake Oswego last week, when City officials joined 20,000 people across the Pacific Northwest for Cascadia Rising, a multi-state earthquake and tsunami readiness drill designed to simulate the first few days after a major natural disaster.

The exercise, which was developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. military and state and local officials, was named after the 600-mile-long Cascadia Subduction Zone fault that stretches from Northern California to British Columbia. More than 8 million people live in that area, and experts say it could take months to restore water, sewer, electricity and natural gas for them after a disaster — and longer to repair the roads, bridges and rail lines that will serve as a lifeline for desperately needed equipment, food and supplies.

That could have a devastating effect on an unprepared Lake Oswego, where only 13 firefighters are on duty at any given time to cover a population area of 50,000 people. Communication could be sporadic at best, Zoutendijk said, and it could be days — or maybe longer — before first responders can peel away from the biggest priorities to reach neighborhoods in need.

This time, the events were just a simulation. But the threat of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is very real. The region has experienced a 9.0 quake about every 500 years, and seismologists say the fault line could rupture at any time.REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Philip Rossi, Mark Davis, Russ Garrett and Ron Kinder, all volunteers with Lake Oswego Amateur Radio Emergency Service, use their equipment to keep Lake Oswego connected during last week's Cascadia Rising simulation.

That’s why Lake Oswego holds an annual staff meeting to plan for natural disasters — “just to talk through, ‘OK, is there anything we need to be thinking about? Any concerns? How are we going to work through this?’” said Citizen Information Specialist Bonnie Hirshberger.

“But the functional exercises, which is where we actually get phone calls and have to respond and react — we do that pretty much every two years,” Hirshberger said.

This year’s exercise was by far the largest. It started Tuesday, with Gov. Kate Brown declaring a catastrophic disaster and notifying federal and out-of-state authorities of the need for assistance.

“This might seem so overwhelming that preparation by individual Oregonians or state government is too big of a task, but I want you all to know that we can do this,” Brown said. “We can do this together. Preparedness is readiness. We will do it together, building a better-prepared and more resilient Oregon, one step at a time and one brick at a time. Today we take a major step toward resiliency.”

Brown then joined emergency management officials on a helicopter to mimic surveying the damage in the wake of a disaster and to watch Portland Fire and Rescue and the Air Force Reserve perform joint rescue and recovery operations. Those operations included mass casualty treatments, roof-top extractions and collapsed-space rescue operations. Some of the other exercises tested strategic communications and telecommunications.

In Lake Oswego, City and emergency management staff held a meeting later in the day to plan a response, and on Tuesday night, the Lake Oswego City Council issued a “practice” declaration of emergency in preparation for the simulation events on Wednesday.

Throughout the four-day simulation, operators were tasked with placing simulated emergency calls to emergency command centers in cities and counties throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“The main issue today is not specific things (in the simulation),” City Manager Scott Lazenby said as those calls flooded into the command center, “but to clarify roles — how can we be strategic in reacting quickly?”SUBMITTED PHOTO: SPC. MICHAEL GERMUNDSON - Representatives from the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office assess information on Day 2 of Cascadia Rising at the Oregon Office of Emergency Management Emergency Coordination Center in Salem.

‘Prepare for the coming days’

At Lake Oswego’s Emergency Operations Center, Zoutendijk said personnel were divided into several teams with specific functions: The logistics team tracked people and resources and made plans to connect the two over the next 12-24 hours; the operations team handled current events on the ground; the finance team made sure that needed resources were authorized and funded; and the Public Information Officer made sure “people know what to do.”

Directing it all was the command staff, which for last week’s exercise included Hirshberger and LOFD Fire Chief Larry Goff.

Zoutendijk said the City will use the same command structure for any natural disaster or similar event, although the roles are typically switched around during simulations so that staff members are prepared to take on multiple jobs. The command structure also includes local groups such as the school district and the Lake Corp.

“We try to get some of the major players out there to be part of our operations center,” Zoutendijk said. “The school district is a big one, because they have shelters and buses.”

Lake Oswego’s exercise began in earnest on Wednesday morning and lasted for at least six hours, pulling in staff from various departments all over the city. The simulation included a shift change, where the morning staff had to bring the afternoon staff up to speed on everything that had happened. Throughout the event, FEMA maintained simulated news broadcasts and social media posts about the disaster.SUBMITTED PHOTO: OREGON OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT - Oregon Gov. Kate Brown receives a briefing from Maj. Gen. Michael E. Stencel, the state's adjutant general, during the Cascadia Rising exercise at the Oregon Office of Emergency Management Emergency Coordination Center in Salem.

“The idea was that this morning is the second day — that’s when the Emergency Operations Center will be fully staffed, which is realistic for a big earthquake,” Goff said. “The day before, they’re just working with what they have. Now we’re trying to better prepare for the coming days.”

Whiteboards on the walls listed the incidents that the team had already worked through, like the collapsed building at Mary’s Woods and the landslides on Kerr Parkway and Highway 43. But the operations team was still dealing with the Hagg Lake dam rupture and the floodwaters that were headed toward Lake Oswego. Oswego Lake’s own dam was still operational and could be opened to prevent the lake from flooding, but canal residents needed to be warned.

In the meantime, the logistics team was working on assessing the condition of schools. With City Hall and the south fire station both closed, the school buildings would be critical shelter locations in the coming days — assuming they were still safe to enter.

“We’re pretty lucky in Lake Oswego in that we don’t have a lot of the unreinforced masonry that Portland does,” Hirshberger said. But she added that the schools are one of the few places where that kind of masonry can be found in Lake Oswego, so the buildings have to be carefully checked before they can be used.SUBMITTED PHOTO: OREGON OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT - The Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches from Northern California to British Columbia, a region thats home to about 8 million people.

‘This will be it’

In a different corner of the fire station, a team of local volunteers handled communications with county and federal officials. Cell phones and other normal means of communication can’t be counted on in the aftermath of a major earthquake or other disaster, so the City will rely on the Lake Oswego Amateur Radio Emergency Service.

“We would self-activate,” said volunteer Philip Rossi. “I live in Old Town, so I would come here (to the downtown fire station).”

Rossi said the group already has radio equipment stored at each of Lake Oswego’s fire stations and in the City’s operations center, which the group tests and maintains each year. The radios can be connected to their own antennae, and the fire stations all have generators in case the power goes out.

LO ARES is part of a nationwide network of licensed amateur operators that can help maintain communications between jurisdictions after a major disaster. They can send voice or data transmissions and relay messages from the command center.

“The whole country is broken down by state, to counties (and finally) to sub-units like this one. We’re a sub-unit to Clackamas County,” Rossi explained. “That’s critical, because when they do have that Cascadia earthquake, this will be it — this will be communications, depending on what survives.”

On Wednesday afternoon, things were going smoothly in the radio room — at least on Lake Oswego’s end. For some reason, Clackamas County hadn’t been receiving communications from some of the various ARES stations, so the Lake Oswego team had to forward messages from other areas.SUBMITTED PHOTO: OREGON OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT/CORY GROGAN - Joseph Nimmich, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, addresses elected officials and other dignitaries on Day 2 of Cascadia Rising at the Oregon Office of Emergency Management Emergency Coordination Center in Salem.

“That’s why we have these simulated emergencies, so we can test everything and find out what’s working and what’s not,” said LO ARES unit head Russ Garrett. “The goal is just to stay familiar with everything. It’s a lot more complicated than just picking up a walkie-talkie.”

After the event, Hirshberger said the City plans to continue to hold biannual simulations. Some of them will again tie into the same earthquake event, she said, but at a later point in time.

“In two years, the plan is to continue this exercise. It might not be as big as this one — that will depend on FEMA — but at least the county and local jurisdictions will do a continuation from this,” Hirshberger said. “So now we’re two weeks after the big one: Where are we at, what are we doing? How are we getting services back up? So that’s the plan for the next big exercise for us.”

But at the moment, City staff had their hands full dealing with the Day Two drill. By a little after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the mood in the command center had visibly calmed a bit, but the simulation wasn’t over yet.

“We’ll be doing an aftershock in a bit,” Hirshberger said.

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..