Earlier this month, Coos and Curry County came together to plan for the worst-case disaster scenario. They underwent a series of exercises to solidify roles for each county and get familiar with what to do in the case of a tsunami, earthquake or other emergency situation. Debbie Mueller is the Coos County Emergency Coordinator. She joins us to share how these trainings went and how Oregonians can be prepared for the worst.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Throughout the summer, emergency response managers on Oregon’s south coast in Coos and Curry Counties held a series of exercises to prepare for the big earthquake, a major tsunami, or other disasters. Debbie Mueller is the Emergency Coordinator for Coos County. She joins us now to talk about what they learned, and the state of emergency readiness on Oregon’s south coast. Welcome to the show.
Debbie Mueller: Thank you. We learned a lot about our abilities to work together and how we need to coordinate our emergency operations center and improve communications. I think that’s always the key thing.
Miller: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because we’re talking about different cities, different counties, different agencies. There’s a state as well. How well can you all, literally, hear each other? How well do different communication systems work, and to what extent do you speak the same language?
Mueller: We all speak the same language and we follow the National Information Management System, the NIM System. Part of, in disasters, to receive federal funding, you’re required to have people qualified in this system. As time has gone on, our different agencies are working on coming on board with that. During an event, you all use common language so that everybody understands what you’re talking about.
One of the biggest things we’re learning is that we really need to work together beforehand with our partners to know who they are and know what everybody’s capability is before we then ask for assistance from the state. You need to know what’s in your backyard, who are your businesses, what food and shelter do you really have available, and how are you going to get things there?
We always like to play to the worst case scenario and plan for the Cascadia Subduction, which would be a 9.0 earthquake. It would leave most of the southern coast in small islands, so part of planning is where are these islands going to be? How are we getting food to them? How do we keep people safe?
Miller: When you say islands, it reminds me a little bit about what we heard when we spent a week in Coos Bay in September, hearing that up until about 100 years ago, Coos County was really disconnected from the rest of Oregon in terms of land routes. In a lot of ways, it was economically and socially more tied to California by water. Would you be looking at a similar situation after the big quake?
Mueller: Yes, we would. We have many bridges; in our county alone, we have 47 bridges that are in repair, needing to be retrofitted. Some of our major thoroughfares, such as Highway 101 that runs north and south, connects us to California; a large expanse at the north end of our county is likely to go out and that would keep us from going north. Our 42 South takes us over to the I-5 corridor. It’s about an hour and a half drive, but we are likely to be cut off from there as well.
Miller: What does that mean, in terms of emergency planning and also the way you think about, say, ports or airports?
Mueller: Well, I think that we think about it a lot. The Cape Blanco Airport Import Orford has just received a $2 million grant to upgrade the airport there. It is one that was built in World War II, and it is one of the only ones in our area that would hold large cargo planes. We’ve looked at that.
As far as ports, some of our bigger ones are likely to be underwater and have a lot of debris sludge on them for a long time. The Army Corps of Engineers did a study to identify different coast beaches along an area where they could land to get us supplies and equipment. During our port exercise, we talked about things that might be needed to help quickly clear a port to get relief in as well.
Miller: You know, at one point, 40 years ago or so, nobody talked about the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Geologists didn’t know that it was a thing. Now there are so many warnings from emergency managers like you and others. Have you found fatigue in people you talk to, in residents, who you’re trying to warn?
Mueller: Absolutely. I am newer to Oregon, and living on the coast, so I find, in trying to educate the community, you have the group that feels like they’re so tired of hearing about it and not really feeling like it’s gonna be in their lifetime. We also find we have a lot of newer people to the area who suddenly realize, oh, I live on the coast now and that might affect me. I might want to think about that. I do think people get very tired of hearing about it. One of the things we have started to do was really emphasize that yes, that is the worst case scenario, but we also want to include with that other things, such as fire, which currently is a hot topic, literally, for us, and being prepared for your worst case scenario. Hopefully we’ll keep it prepared for everything.
Miller: You moved to Oregon after losing your home to California’s campfire four years ago. How did that experience affect the way you think about emergency preparedness?
Mueller: Well, I had been doing emergency preparedness for probably a good 10 years, and I would have told you prior to the fire that I felt like I had documented stuff, I had stuff in my safe, all the pictures and copies of everything, but the intensity of the fire totally disintegrated everything in the safe. Literally everything in there was ashes. I didn’t understand that safes and fire boxes are really only equipped for your everyday house fire, where you might have a fire department within 10 to 15 minutes of your home, and not the heat intensity that we now are seeing in some of our local fires. Certainly here in Oregon we’ve seen that, with Talent and Phoenix. Thinking about it when I educate people about being prepared, I really emphasize that, as well as the importance of understanding about insurance.
On a personal note, I also have really rethought about what’s really important to me. The house that burned for us, my wife and I had been in for over 35 years, 36 years, and you can’t ever really replace all that. All you really end up with, I feel like I’m old saying this, but all you have left is your memories. It’s really important to spend money on having memories with people, because you never know when things are going to just be gone. Of course, people could be gone in a fire, too, and that’s why we want evacuation plans.
The other thing that really changed and helped me in my current position is really understanding notification systems. In Butte County in California. We used Code Red, which is similar to Oregon’s Everbridge. Not everybody in the community is always on their phone or on an electronic device. Here on the coast, we have many areas that still don’t get great signals, as well as the older population that really wants nothing to do with electronics still. Your notification systems really need to be all encompassing in trying to let people know or warn them of dangers.
The other part is helping people understand, to be aware of their surroundings and situation. If you’re at the beach and you actually experience an earthquake that goes on for a minute and it’s strong enough to throw you to the ground, that’s an indication that a tsunami could be following. We just had the Oregon Great Shakeout on October 20th to remind people of being prepared, and to get under hold, and really have that awareness of where you are, and if you’re outside what to do.
Miller: Debbie Mueller, thanks very much for your time.
Mueller: You’re very welcome. Thanks, Dave.
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