When Curtis Peetz, a Red Cross disaster officer for Oregon, first heard about the earthquakes that shook Southern California last week, his first thought was of worry for the people affected.
But that thought was followed closely by a second: An earthquake widely expected to be more powerful could strike in Oregon, too — and the state has a long ways to go before being ready to cope with the aftermath.
‘We have a lot of work to do,” Peetz said.
Last week, 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude earthquakes rattled Southern California — with thousands of smaller aftershocks reported since.
The quakes served as a reminder for many in Oregon that the West Coast’s worst potential disaster — a 9.0 magnitude earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone — is predicted by scientists to be on its way.
And while major damage isn’t expected in Central Oregon, the region will play a vital role in relief and recovery efforts.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami along the 600-mile subduction zone 100 miles off the coastline could kill thousands and leave much of Western Oregon, California and Washington without essential services.
Bend has been identified as the state’s backup site for emergency communications — and the possible home to thousands of refugees — if Salem is incapacitated by the shaking.
So is Central Oregon ready to respond?
The answer: It’s a work in progress.
‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’
Because of its geology and distance from the coastline, Central Oregon for the past few years has been discussed as a possible hub for emergency communications and home base for importing and distributing supplies for quake victims.
The Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program’s Bend campus on Dodds Road is the backup site for the state’s Emergency Coordinating Center if the current command center and two other locations in Salem aren’t operational.
Redmond Airport has also been identified as a likely staging ground if airfields west of the Cascades are rendered unusable.
Several other sites, such as the Deschutes County Fair & Expo center and U.S. Forest Service facilities have also been discussed as possible assets to help in an emergency, said Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Nathan Garibay, the county’s emergency services manager.
But if it were to happen today, there would still be several unanswered questions as to how it would all work.
“There’s not a lot set in stone,” Garibay said. “Planning efforts are still in process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Although there are benefits, moving critical functions to the east side of the mountains has its challenges, Garibay said. How supplies, like food and fuel, will come to Central Oregon are among them.
“We get most of our fuel from Portland, which will not be in good shape,” Garibay said. “It will take time for normal distribution channels and routes to be (open and be) able to get those supplies. Anything coming through Redmond is earmarked for people on the west side of the state gravely impacted by the event.”
Because of this, Garibay also has concerns over the region’s ability to handle what could be thousands of refugees from west of the Cascades, drifting eastward looking for resources and shelter.
But whether it’s people or supplies, one of the biggest challenges remains that no safe route has been identified for people traveling west to east, said Peetz, of the Red Cross. Long-term sheltering plans also still need to be discussed.
“There isn’t an east-west roadway that has been identified as being passable to push supplies,” Peetz said.
Many of the decisions about transporting supplies and people will need to be made at the time of an earthquake, based on what resources are available and where, said Paula Negele, public information officer for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
“We’re planning for it, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
But local agencies should prepare. Some of the planning lessons learned from housing and transporting thousands of people during the 2017 eclipse could also be useful, she said.
“We know that Central Oregon is going to be impacted in some way,” Negele said. “People will either self-evacuate, … or they may want to stay where there are. But counties need to plan for the impact that could have on their infrastructure.”
As the state and local governments iron out larger response plans, Negele said one of the most critical parts of emergency planning is encouraging individual people to be prepared.
“You can’t discount the power of personal responsibility in each community,” Negele said. “Be two weeks ready with supplies. Talk about where to meet after a disaster and what you’re going to do.”
Conversation is important, Peetz said, but additional resources are also needed.
Several emergency preparedness bills, including one that would have provided an income tax credit for taxpayers who purchase certain emergency preparedness supplies and another focused around preparing the Redmond Airport to handle more capacity during an emergency, did not make it out of committee this legislative session, said state Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend.
“The Legislature is acknowledging that we need to be prepared, but we have not passed or put in any commitment toward the planning,” Helt said.
While recognizing the importance of balancing priorities, Helt said it is important Central Oregon be prepared to service the community and western part of the state when catastrophe strikes.
It feels only fair to help out, Garibay said, after several summers of Western Oregon responders coming to the region to help fight wildfire.
“In the event of Cascadia,” he said, “we may have the opportunity to pay that favor.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org