There are a lot of uncertainties when it comes to catastrophic weather events or natural disasters. But there are also a few certitudes: More are coming, and Oregon is not ready.
“I don’t think people appreciate what is coming and what is already here,” said Alice Hill, who worked for the U.S. National Security Council. “It’s going to get worse and that is very difficult for policy makers to understand.”
The state is still reeling from a week-long ice storm that left thousands without power, many with ruined homes and more than a dozen people dead.
This month’s storm was the latest in a string of extreme weather events that have pummeled the state in recent years — often hitting the most vulnerable the hardest — from the deadly heat dome to devastating wildfires to other extreme winter storms.
Many of the most recent events have been fueled by climate change. Last year, 2023, was the hottest year on record, Hill noted, but it’s likely for “a little girl born this year, it will be one of the cooler years of that child’s life. And it’s difficult for people to comprehend that.”
In addition to a warming planet, Oregon has to prepare for a catastrophic event expected to outstrip any disaster experienced thus far: The Big One, or the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, expected to devastate the Pacific Northwest.
“One of the things that keeps me up at night is … we are the only post-industrial region pretty much in the world that hasn’t lived through our worst natural disaster,” said Rep. Dacia Grayber, who is a first responder and also an Oregon Democratic lawmaker representing Southwest Portland and parts of Beaverton.
There are myriad reasons preparing for future disasters is difficult; ranging from political polarization to the need to address seemingly more urgent emergencies.
It’s also often difficult for government agencies to take a long-term approach to disasters, especially when it causes heartburn for them — and their constituents — in the present.
Take, for example, the effort to create a “wildfire risk map” intended to educate homeowners about their fire risk and determine where the state should work to prioritize wildfire mitigation efforts. There was intense backlash from the public. Many were concerned their insurance premiums would spike, and the maps were withdrawn.
Another example: the city of Portland tried to point out which buildings would be vulnerable in an earthquake, only to be sued after building owners accused them of devaluing their property.
Planning for emergencies that we haven’t experienced yet is extremely difficult, Hill said.
It often causes “a certain paralysis,” she said, “but it shouldn’t.”
What Oregon is doing — Rely on yourself
Earlier this month, as ice encased much of the Willamette Valley and other areas west of the Cascades, state Rep. Grayber was working overtime. She worked in her day job as a firefighter and first responder. And she clocked time in her state lawmaker’s role.
It can be hard for Grayber, who chairs the House Interim Committee On Emergency Management, General Government, and Veterans, to feel overly optimistic about how prepared we are as a state for the “big one” and other calamities.
“We have seen this train barreling down on us for some time,” she said, and yet we only tend to react when emergencies start to “personally affect us.”
But there was a glimmer of hope in the most recent storm. When people lost power, Grayber’s inbox filled up with people who were concerned about their neighbors.
“To look at the very bright side of things, what we saw in the last storm is when push comes to shove … You see folks out in the street checking on neighbors and going house to house,” the lawmaker said. “I received so many different emails that were really based on: I’m worried about my neighbors.”
And that basic trait of humanity, looking out for those most vulnerable amongst us, is something the state is trying to leverage to help prepare us all.
It’s the heart of an idea that came out of the 2023 legislative session: a grant program to create “community resiliency hubs.” The aim is to fund community-based or faith-based organizations working with government entities to serve as a warming or cooling shelter or a place to help people in the midst of a disaster.
“It’s no secret that Oregon’s emergency management services are stretched thin, and across the state, people of color, low-income, rural, and disabled communities are hit hardest in times of disaster,” a letter to legislative leaders from the community resilience hub coalition read in March of 2023.
Those hubs were not active for the January storm, which led to at least 17 deaths. But the spirit the hubs hope to capitalize on was alive in some places.
Coralie Russell, 79, and her husband, who live in the Bridlemile neighborhood in Southwest Portland, were without power for nine days. The temperature in their bedroom dipped to 36 degrees.
“We had some extremely kind neighbors that checked on us and brought us some meals here and there,” Russell said.
One neighbor helped them charge their phones using a generator. Another ran a power line from their house to the Russell’s, which helped them place a space heater in their bedroom, raising the heat to 45 degrees. Grayber, the state lawmaker, also visited.
Still, even with all the help, it was a rough stretch of time, Russell said.
“The trees that are left, I used to enjoy them and think they were so beautiful and now, I’m afraid of them,” she said.
Shortly after the 2020 Labor Day fires ripped through the state, burning nearly 850,000 acres of forests, destroying more than 4,000 homes and killing eleven people, the Office of Resilience and Emergency Management was set up as part of the state’s Department of Human Services. Ed Flick, who oversees the office, said he believes the community hubs will be key but that the state also needs to be intentional when it comes to helping the most vulnerable.
“I think our systems are really, in a lot of ways, built to support homeowners, the middle class and I always worry about the people who are impacted that we just don’t see. It could be people that have specific medical needs that are barriers to them being prepared,” Flick said.
“It’s folks that, that can’t afford to be to, to buy the (earthquake) kit and to, to have a plan and those things that we tend to talk to the general public about, it’s communities of color, you know, it’s folks that are not owning homes, they don’t necessarily have insurance, they don’t have the financial resiliency to bounce back or to prepare ahead of time.”
Another recent big change the state made: in 2022, Oregon made the Office of Emergency Management its own standalone agency. It was formerly part of the Military Department and Oregon State Police. Gov. Tina Kotek appointed retired Army officer Erin McMahon to lead the agency. The recent ice storm was her first statewide disaster in the role. On a recent afternoon, shortly after the storm, McMahon was surveying the damage in Lane County.
McMahon said the state is in the midst of an “awakening” when it comes to emergency management.
“My ability to have direct contact with the governor to ensure that she’s seeing the big picture that I’m seeing and where there are risks and threats that I’m able to directly communicate them without a filter to the governor is very important,” she said, adding her agency will issue a report on how they think the storm was handled once the cleanup phase is finished.
Grayber said a sense of urgency can’t come soon enough.
This coming legislative session, which kicks off Feb. 5, Grayber would like a study to dig deeper into toxic vapors that are expected to kill thousands when the earthquake hits. During the longer 2025 session, she hopes to find money to help schools that are seismically upgraded serve as hazard shelters in an emergency. There is no comprehensive single repository where a person could determine which schools are retrofitted. The lack of clear, transparent data is also a problem.
But, as always, money will also be a challenge.
“It’s really hard to say, hey, I need $10 million for this program when we have people right here and right now dying on our streets,” Grayber said, referring to the housing and fentanyl crisis playing out in Oregon. “You’re fighting for this very finite pool of funding.”
Until a lot more preparation is done to protect Oregonians, Grayber has another hard message: outdated infrastructure, such as bridges and roads will make it very hard for first responders to help in an earthquake. Even TriMet’s light rail system was paralyzed for a record length of time during the most recent ice storm.
“It’s a hard thing to do this for a living (first responder) and then say, by the way, we won’t be there,” she said. “We will do everything in our power to be there … but it is going to really be about building that resilience at the community level.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show Rep. Dacia Grayber will push for funding for schools to also serve as emergency shelters during the 2025 session, rather than the one that starts in February. OPB regrets the error.