The hundreds of thousands of people converging for the total solar eclipse that will pass over Central Oregon on the morning of Aug. 21 are expected to push Central Oregon’s social services and infrastructure to their breaking point.
However, the strain may well be worth the headache it creates for state and local agencies, as it will help them gather information on how the region can handle an even bigger and less predictable natural phenomenon: an earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is widely viewed by Oregon officials as the state’s greatest natural threat.
“This is the best live practice we could hope for,” said Erik Rau, emergency management planner for Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management.
While the two natural phenomena will have very different impacts on the state of Oregon, Rau said the eclipse can help shape the response to a natural disaster, from giving members of different organizations practice working together to determining how the region can handle a sudden crush of people.
“I don’t want people to feel like all this work is going to disappear on Aug. 22,” said Ashley Volz, emergency services coordinator for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office.
On the surface, the Cascadia earthquake and the August eclipse have little in common. The celestial phenomenon, the first total eclipse visible in Oregon since 1979, can be predicted down to the second, a precision that will draw thousands of national and international travelers to Central Oregon for a moment they can count on.
Most hotel rooms in and around Madras, which will have the best views in the region, have been booked for years, and many event planners and state agencies have had it on their radar for at least as long. Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky said Central Oregon is planning for around 200,000 people during the weekend leading up to the eclipse, roughly doubling the region’s population.
“It’s certainly not on the scale of Cascadia,” Witcosky said. “But it’s (the challenge of) how do we handle all of these people?”
On the other hand, no one knows precisely when the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an enormous fault line off the Pacific Coast stretching from British Columbia to Northern California, will trigger an earthquake that could register 9.0 on the Richter scale — except that it will likely happen soon.
Ali Ryan Hansen, communications director for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, said more than 40 earthquakes have occurred on the fault line in known geologic history. She said there’s a 37 percent chance another will occur in the next 50 years.
“Oregon will have another Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake,” Ryan Hansen said.
While all of Oregon will feel the earthquake, the effects will vary widely across the state. Ryan Hansen said the Oregon Resilience Plan, a 2013 plan that directs the state’s response to a massive quake, divides the state into four zones of impact, with the effects of the earthquake getting less severe moving west to east. Bend, and the rest of Central Oregon, is in the least severe zone, with effects classified as “mild to moderate,” according to Ryan Hansen.
“It’s that level of books falling off shelves, windows breaking, that kind of thing,” she said.
However, with severe damage anticipated to the west of the Cascades, Central and Eastern Oregon will be the center of the state and national response. Central Oregon, and Redmond in particular, will become a staging area for emergency resources and personnel and will host thousands of injured and displaced people from the other side of the state.
Though the people it attracts will be coming under radically different circumstances, the eclipse in August will help the Office of Emergency Management determine how Central Oregon’s roads, hospitals and other vital services will hold up under the strain of thousands of additional people, Rau said.
Ordinarily, the office would have to simulate a large-scale event like this, but the eclipse will provide a valuable, real-life test case that the office can build from.
“We’re going to be able to gather a lot of data from this,” Rau said.
Redmond, located near the southern edge of the path of totality, will be the interagency center for both the eclipse and, in all likelihood, the response to the Cascadia quake. Volz said multiple agencies from Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties will set up a joint information center at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, allowing them to work collaboratively in case of a major problem for the eclipse.
The new Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center at the U.S. Forest Service’s Redmond Air Center will also play a vital role, helping dispatchers respond quickly in case of a wildfire in the region.
“The beauty of the eclipse is that we get to plan for it,” said Redmond Mayor George Endicott.
Endicott, who was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Resilience Plan Implementation, described the eclipse as a “dress rehearsal” for the Cascadia quake for the city and the region. In the event of a large earthquake or other natural disaster, Redmond Airport would likely become a staging area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would then take command of the dispatch center, Endicott said. In all likelihood, Redmond would also host a joint information center somewhere in town for the earthquake.
For obvious reasons, the comparison between the eclipse and a massive earthquake is far from perfect.
For an earthquake, several of the highways across the state will likely be unusable, thanks to landslides and other structural damage, according to Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Murphy. Also, the possibility that the earthquake could occur during the winter makes it a challenge to use an event in August to plan emergency routes through snow-covered passes and along ice-covered roads, Endicott said.
“What if it’s 2 a.m. on Feb. 3?” Endicott said. “Totally different scenario.”
Still, Volz and Murphy agreed the most valuable element of the preparation is the collaboration between agencies. Murphy said state and local agencies have to learn to inhabit different roles during an emergency, something that’s difficult to practice under normal circumstances.
“You kind of lose the badge and become one,” Murphy said.
Volz added that the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office will be hosting a “hot wash” in September or October to discuss what went well during the eclipse and what needs improvement. She said the discussion could lead to changes to the management plan during the eclipse.
“The communication is always the biggest takeaway,” Volz said.
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