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Plan for the worst, hope for the best

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - West Linn's topography, rolling hills surrounded by rivers and bridges, make it uniquely challenged in the event of a disaster, whether flood, landslide or seismic event. As West Linn’s Public Works Director, Lance Calvert always has to worry about what he calls “the perfect storm.”

He means that both literally and figuratively. Though Oregon is far from hurricane country, it has to worry about its own devastating emergencies — particularly the large scale earthquake that scientists say could hit at any moment. And within those emergencies are countless variables — call them tiny storm cells — that can throw even the best laid plans by the wayside.

“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Calvert said.

For many residents, the call for emergency preparation came from a frightening report in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker magazine, the teaser for which stated that “an earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest.” Scientists quoted in the article put the odds at one in three that a “big” Cascadia earthquake – between 8.0 and 8.6 on the Richter scale — will take place within the next fifty years. The odds for a “very big” earthquake — between 8.7 and 9.2 — over the same period of time are about one in ten.

The article sent shockwaves across the Northwest, but people like Calvert have known about the danger for years now. With September marking National Preparedness Month, and West Linn’s own emergency preparedness fair scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 24, Calvert said the city’s topography and infrastructure makes for a unique challenge in dealing with disaster events.

“I think when people think of emergencies in our area, they’re usually either thinking about floods from the river and streams, or they’re thinking about earthquakes and seismic events, like a big Cascadia event," Calvert said. "With earthquakes, certainly the big ticket items that are concerns from a public works standpoint are buildings and bridges and any major infrastructure items, like our water treatment plan, our tanks, our storage facilities — the heavy lifting pieces of infrastructure that people rely on to do what they do on a day-to-day basis that are taken for granted.”

Water everywhere but...

Start with the city’s much-discussed, aging water system. Though the city has for several years considered hiking its water rates to fund water pipe repairs, and the all-important Bolton Reservoir is more than 100 years old, Calvert said the system is designed to be resilient in the face of a disaster.

“For the most part we’re prepared,” Calvert said. “We’re lucky that our water system is mostly ductile iron, which is very resistant to any kinds of issues … most of our ductile iron is restrained so it can move without breaking.”

West Linn’s drinking water comes from the South Fork Water Treatment Plant, in Oregon City, and is primarily stored in the 2 million gallon Bolton Reservoir on Skyline Drive.

“The big issues that affect us city-wide would be an issue with major storage loss or the loss of a pump station like the Bolton Reservoir or the South Fork Water Treatment Plant,” Calvert said.

Both of those facilities have their issues. Calvert said that several concrete basins at the South Fork plant are not seismically resilient, and need to be replaced within five or six years. And the Bolton Reservoir, of course, just turned 100 years old, with the city working to replace it by 2017.

PAMPLINE MEDIA FILE PHOTO - The Lake Oswego-Tigard Partnership Water Treatment Plant, located in West Linn and undergoing a major rennovation and expansion, will be built to withstand seismic events, a plus because it will provide drinking water to the city in the event its current source, piped across the river from Oregon City, is compromised.

“We do have the intertie (with Lake Oswego), so that provides some resiliency if a plant goes down,” Calvert said. “We also have connections through South Fork to other systems along the Clackamas (River), so that provides some resiliency as well.”

As part of the Lake Oswego-Tigard (LOT) Water Partnership agreement, Lake Oswego will serve as West Linn’s emergency water source. The new LOT treatment plant currently under construction in West Linn is designed to withstand major earthquakes.

“It’s important that we have that Lake Oswego intertie and connection with South Fork — and South Fork has a connection to others — to try to build as much redundancy in the system as we can,” Calvert said.

Moving earth

Of course, the water system is far from West Linn’s only worry in the case of an emergency. The very topography of the city — rolling hills lumped into a kidney bean shape, surrounded almost entirely by rivers — creates problems of its own.

“West Linn is interesting because we’re that kidney bean shape surrounded by a river, and if those bridges go down, there’s only one direction we can go,” West Linn Citizen Engagement Coordinator Lori Hall said.

Calvert noted that most of the major bridges in the area have been retrofitted and reviewed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to ensure they are prepared to handle a disaster situation. Additionally, local power and gas companies have made system improvements in recent years.

Of course, the city’s topography also lends to a fear of landslides in an earthquake.

“In West Linn, there aren’t many active slides — most are fairly ancient,” Calvert said. “There are some areas in the Portland metro area with active sliding. There’s nothing really in West Linn like that.

“Certainly a major earthquake could trigger a slide, or something like that, so we would want to be responsive to that … any place where there’s a steep slope, there’s potential for a slide, whether it’s active or not.”

In the aftermath of an emergency event, West Linn’s new police station would likely serve as the city’s emergency operation center, the “hub” of activity where officials would coordinate with other agencies like the county and state.

“It’s great that that’s in place, because that’s something we didn’t have even two years ago,” Calvert said.

Schools are the most likely locations for shelters, though of course specifics would depend on the extent of damage caused by an event.

“It depends on what’s left standing,” Hall said.

The good news is that, wherever the shelters may be, they and other elements of the city's infrastructure are backed by power generators.

"Any critical infrastructure is backed up by generator power," Calvert said.

Those generators are also tested on a regular basis.

First responders

Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, meanwhile, has various plans of its own in place depending on the circumstance of a natural disaster. TVF&R’s first step in the event of a natural disaster, according to Public Affairs Officer Piseth Pich, would be to assess the severity of the situation and evaluate the impact on infrastructure.

“We have an operations plan that starts with evaluating the severity of impact on infrastructure and doing something called “windshield assessments” that happen at each station and then feeds information back to our central location,” Pich said. “We then look at areas we can and can’t access and prioritize where we need to go first.”

That assessment will largely depend on the damage and integrity to roads as well as the availability of communication channels. TVF&R’s stations are strategically placed throughout Wilsonville so that crews could theoretically reach all over the area in the event of a natural disaster.

Pich also said that TVF&R would be in close contact with other agencies across the area, and that protocols are in place. TVF&R has an emergency manager in charge of creating emergency operations for scenarios just like natural disasters.

“We would be in communication with Portland fire and Clackamas fire who would also be responding, so we’ll work in conjunction with them,” he said. “What are highest priority needs and who can provide the best service where in the situation.”

TVF&R would hope to rely on traditional forms of communication both internally and with the public in the event of a natural disaster. While an earthquake or major storm could knock down power lines and take down Internet connection, Pich said there are measures in place.

“It’s circumstantial, but it depends on what communication lines are available to reach the public,” he said. “We would try to implore channels we use every day like social media; Facebook. If those aren’t accessible there are other ways like broadcasting through amateur AM radio or trying to provide info to media partners.”

Learning to prepare

Various buildings throughout West Linn and Wilsonville could be used as shelters depending on impact and structural integrity following a natural disaster. West Linn-Wilsonville Operations Director Tim Woodley said that the district’s schools could serve as shelters, depending on the circumstances.

Like TVF&R, WL-WV has a variety of different protocols in place for natural disaster emergencies. Schools regularly conduct earthquake and fire drills to teach students how to react, and teachers and staff are frequently trained in emergency response.

“Each teacher is responsible for their class of kids and exit the building when they can,” Woodley says. “Teachers take roll at the start of class and have meeting places established outside the building where they take roll again. If it’s a serious earthquake there’d be an assessment of the building to determine if it’s safe to go back in. We’re a fortunate district, where most buildings are new or have had seismic retrofits.”

The district’s communication methods would be determined by the extent of the natural disaster, much like TVF&R.

“We have a pretty robust infrastructure and all our buildings are connected by landlines,” Woodley says. “We have phone trees and communication because we have more than one school plus our district office, which is very well-constructed and protected.”

And emergency preparedness is something the district has been cognizant of for years. The district works with its employees and a professional consultant on a regular basis to make sure everyone is as prepared as possible. WL-WV has a safety committee that meets monthly, all employees are trained annually in two-day crisis programs and the district has bond money allocated toward consistently updating plans.

Contact Patrick Malee at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or pmalee@westlinntidings.com. Contact Andrew Kilstrom at 503-636-1281 Ext. 112 or akilstrom@pamplinmedia.com.


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West Linn


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  • 4 Oct 2015

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  • 5 Oct 2015

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