Think Out Loud

In Lincoln County, agencies prepare for Cascadia earthquake

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 15, 2024 10 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, May 16

Hundreds of people gathered over the last two days at the Newport Municipal Airport to practice setting up what’s called an Evacuation Assembly Point. The new equipment comes from the state Office of Resilience and Emergency Management, and contains tents, cots, medical supplies and food to create a central place for people who need to be airlifted to safety after an emergency on the coast, and also a staging place to receive incoming supplies. We talk to Ed Flick, Director of OREM, and Lincoln County Emergency Manager Samantha Buckley about how these kinds of events help prepare for big disasters that may be in our future.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Hundreds of people gathered over the last two days at the Newport Municipal Airport to practice setting up what’s called an Evacuation Assembly Point. It is a central place for people to seek refuge and food after a major emergency. The exercise was spearheaded by Oregon’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management. Ed Flick is the Director of the office. He joins us now, along with Samantha Buckley, Lincoln County’s new emergency manager. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Ed Flick: Hi. Good afternoon, Dave.

Samantha Buckley: Hi.

Miller: Good afternoon. Ed Flick, first – we’ve talked in the past with folks from Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, a name that sounds very similar to your office but is actually different. What is your mandate?

Flick: Yeah, it’s a great question, Dave. So the Oregon Department of Emergency Management is our lead state agency for coordinating support across the state agencies and also for local governments. We’re located in the Oregon Department of Human Services and we’re one of 33 state agencies that have specific roles to support that overall state effort. We’re responsible for what we call mass care, which begins with assisting local jurisdictions with evacuation support and then coordinating shelter, feeding, family reunification, and social services recovery.

Miller: Those are a lot of big things. I mean, a lot of the things that you’re tasked with are among the jobs that I think might be top of mind among people when they think, what will a government provide in an emergency? A lot of that is actually your office’s responsibility.

Flick: That’s true. We continue to see incidents that touch on people and we were created in the immediate aftermath of the Labor Day fires in 2020. I think I started here at ODHS on the 8th of September 2020. Working with a variety of public and private partners – the American Red Cross, local governments, businesses, community based organizations – we really just endeavor to create a whole community approach to taking care of people with these really urgent life sustaining needs.

Miller: What was the big idea behind this week’s exercise?

Flick: We’ve known for a long time in emergency management that the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake is gonna have a catastrophic impact on our coastal communities. And our plans have identified the need to establish mechanisms to assist people to evacuate. We hope to be able to support people to stay on the coast after the earthquake, but some people are just gonna need to be evacuated. And so the big idea here was to work with a whole collection of partners in Lincoln County to find practical ways that we could support people that need to be evacuated.

Miller: This started supplies-wise with the delivery of the materials for this EAP, this Evacuation Assembly Point. What was in the package?

Flick: The package itself, which is equipment that’s actually stored out at the airport right now, is a collection of 17 different tents. We have provisions for sheltering, for command and control, for communications, for medical capabilities. We preposition satellite communications out there in Lincoln County, and then the supplies necessary to support about 80 people for 14 days. And that would be the capabilities that could be put into operation quickly after an earthquake, to get us started while we organized resupply into the community.

Miller: Samantha Buckley, what were your own big goals for this week as the emergency manager for the county?

Buckley: Yeah, some of our big goals for Lincoln County were to really familiarize ourselves with the equipment. We’re very thankful that ODHS has given us the opportunity to have these supplies here and help build our countywide resilience. And part of that includes making sure we have folks who can do the work when the time comes. And so that was definitely one of our biggest goals was making sure we had folks on hand who could learn and would be able to stand it up in an event.

Miller: Am I right that … I mean, what you’re talking about is important, but [as] basic as, we have this tent in this bag or 17 of them, [and] how do we put them together?

Buckley: Yeah, absolutely. So these tents are larger tents. They require a couple of people to put up and they’re not super challenging, but they’re not necessarily intuitive. And so making sure that you have some folks who understand the steps of laying out the floor, pulling the tent out, establishing some type of mechanism to hold it down in the wind is really important for making sure that you can actually arrive and stand up and provide those services.

Miller: How do you create enough of a sense of urgency and discombobulation that would give you some approximation of what it would feel like after the actual event? I mean, if it’s just sort of a sunny, pleasant Tuesday afternoon, how do you actually feel, as a part of this drill, anything close to what it’s going to feel like when the big one hits?

Buckley: This is a great question. I think that’s really challenging and I don’t know that you ever can, right? We do the best that we can to make sure that people, when they arrive to come participate in these drills, have creature comfort so that they are physically taken care of. And in an actual event, some of those things are obviously not going to be immediately available, right? Ed Flick’s team had porta potties established on site when we arrived. And some things like that, they’re just not going to be available in events.

I think that part of the importance of planning and practicing is making sure that folks aren’t so stressed that they can’t learn and engage. So I think that it’s more about the learning and engagement piece and less about trying to increase the amplification of stress, if that makes sense.

Miller: It totally does. I mean, I guess if you amplify the stress so much that people can’t learn, there’s no point in doing the exercise, even if it means it’s not a perfect approximation of what the actual event will be like.


Samantha, from your perspective, what worked well in this exercise?

Buckley: Yeah, some of the things that I think worked really well were that we were able to stand up all of the tents and the supplies in roughly four hours. And for me, that felt like a huge success – that is very quick to stand up this much equipment. And we were also able to successfully run both a school board meeting in the evening on Tuesday, remotely, and a board of commissioner meeting. And we had some regular hiccups with some of the tech pieces of that, but it’s so good to practice that beforehand, so you can start to address those issues.

Miller: So, for example, for the county commission meeting, this was a monthly meeting that happened yesterday morning, if I’m not mistaken. What was the idea of holding that in this emergency space?

Buckley: I think something that we sometimes don’t think about when we think about emergencies is that we still have to have some level of business that has to happen after an emergency. And commissioner meetings are really valuable after an emergency. They would be the ones to declare locally that an emergency is happening. And being able to have some of those more official meetings in a remote environment is really valuable so that you’re able to share that information out with the public and continue to conduct some level of business.

Miller: Ed Flick, how was this particular area chosen, the Newport Airport, as a site for this evacuation assembly point?

Flick: We’ve been looking as a state and also with federal support at where the focal points of effort would be up and down the coast. And the airport there in Lincoln County has been identified as one of several staging bases. And so this is one of three sites that we have established. We have another one up in Tillamook which would support the north coast. Newport would be the location to support the central coast. And then, we’ve prepositioned equipment down in the vicinity of Coos Bay to support the southern coast. So it really ties into the state and federal concept of support.

Miller: Although, as you said, the idea, if I understood correctly, was that 80 people could be supported at these sites for 14 days. That’s in terms of the food provisions?

Flick: That’s the number for sheltering beds and food. And rather than think of an individual person being at this location for two weeks, really what it is, it’s initially enough supplies to help people who are staged and then evacuated out of the area, and having just enough food and material on hand to support that initial effort. That gives us a little bit of time to organize resupply.

Miller: That makes sense. So this is not a mass tsunami refugee zone; this is a place where there’s a little bit of stuff that can sustain people temporarily when the worst thing happens, and then ideally, people would be moved somewhere else?

Flick: Exactly. There’s some people that are just not going to thrive unless they’re evacuated out of the area. Preparedness begins at home and it’s so important for everybody that can, to prepare, to have two or three weeks worth of supplies in their home. This is really a mechanism to assist people to evacuate, our seniors, people with access and functional needs, maybe pregnant people, people with disabilities. This is how we meet the needs of the people that really are going to have to be evacuated to be safe.

Miller: What about communication? Samantha Buckley, first. How did that work on Tuesday and Wednesday?

Buckley: Yeah, we have a satellite communications device that we wheeled out there for use and on Tuesday, it worked pretty well. We were able to utilize it for the school board meeting. I think they ran into some hiccups on Wednesday, but again, that’s just part of the process in learning and trying to make sure that we have some eyes on what we might want to work on for the future. We also had a member of our auxiliary communications services team out there with some radios and if we had an actual event, we would rely on them to help us provide radio communications as well.

Miller: Ed Flick, for exercises like this, are cell phones frowned upon because there’s a good chance that a bunch of cell towers would be destroyed and the thinking being that you couldn’t rely on them in an emergency?

Flick: We know that cellular communication is gonna be significantly disrupted. Cell towers may operate for a period of time, but it’s certainly not something we’d want to depend on. And I can’t say enough about the importance of auxiliary radio and those groups that can provide communication, both within the region and then out of the region. And then the satellite communication resource that’s there, we’ve prepositioned with Samantha’s program, really is gonna be so important that we can communicate across the breadth of the affected space, and really coordinate state and federal support to local efforts.

Miller: Ed, what do you see as the other big lessons or areas for improvement that stood out based on this two day exercise?

Flick: I think the first thing I want to highlight is more important than the tents and the equipment is the collection of people and organizations that came together across the two days. We’ve talked a lot about whole community response in emergency management. It was just amazing to see so many people represented in so many different organizations come together and think about how they would work together to meet the enormous challenges involved in a response to Cascadia Subduction Zone. That is something we want to build on. We are just closing a grant actually that we administered to build resilience hubs and networks across Oregon. And it just was a reminder to me that there’s people thinking about resilience in our communities every day. And so that’s the big win here.

Challenges are simply one of scale. The impacts are going to be enormous and it’s gonna take a whole of society effort to prepare and respond to Cascadia. So we hope to demonstrate that you can become more prepared, but we also have our eyes wide open to know that it’s gonna take a lot more to really be ready for the Cascadia earthquake.

Miller: Samantha, you’ve been on the job since the beginning of this year. So we’re still just in the fifth month right now. What was this like for you, as somebody who is still starting this particular job with the county?

Buckley: I think this was a really valuable opportunity for me to think on a bigger scale, and think about some of the bigger things that we might want to tackle for Lincoln County in the coming years. And this was a great starting point to sort of see what we might be capable of with some good planning and effort.

Miller: Samantha and Ed, thanks very much.

Buckley: Thank you.

Flick: My pleasure. Thank you.

Miller: Samantha Buckley is the emergency manager for Lincoln County. Ed Flick is the director of the Office of Resilience and Emergency Management, which is a part of Oregon’s Department of Human Services. They joined us to talk about this week’s emergency preparedness exercise on the mid-coast. It was held at the Newport Municipal Airport which is going to be the site of an evacuation assembly point.

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