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Disaster Planning Moves To The Top Of The Table

CANNON BEACH — Scene 1: It’s 9:55 a.m. Monday, Oct. 13, 2013 in Cannon Beach. No rain, calm wind; high temperature will be 59 degrees, low will be 44.

Everyone in town is going about their usual activities. City officials are either in their City Hall offices or out about town. A police officer is giving a speeding motorist a ticket on U.S. Highway 101 near Tolovana. A resident is walking his dogs on Gower Street; another resident is working in his garage on the north side of town; and a third resident is just driving back to Cannon Beach from the grocery store in Seaside.

Suddenly, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake erupts offshore in the Cascadia subduction zone. The ground shakes for five minutes. A tsunami will approach in 15 to 25 minutes.

And so the tabletop exercise begins.

“Don’t fight the scenario,” said Bill Vanderberg, an emergency preparedness consultant with the city of Cannon Beach. “This is a fact-finding mission. Go with it. I’m the ref; I call the fouls.”

At Vanderberg’s command, eight people sitting at four tables begin to plan what they would do in the event of a Cascadia “event.”

The tabletop exercise conducted Monday was one of several intense sessions attended by a group of city officials, emergency personnel and members of the city’s Emergency Preparedness Committee for more than a year.

Previous sessions focused on how an “incident command system” would be established and what immediate supplies survivors would need for several days – or several months – until recovery was under way.

It was during one of those sessions when participants agreed that a “cache container” site should be established. The city purchased two 8-foot by 20-foot storage containers, and last fall residents placed barrels filled with their personal emergency supplies in those containers.

The first “container site” was in the Ecola Creek Forest Reserve, off of Elk Creek Road. Two other container sites are planned on Old Cannon Road in North Cannon Beach and on the Tolovana Mainline south of the city and east of the highway.

Monday’s tabletop exercise focused on how those container sites would be managed within the first few minutes after the earthquake and before and after the tsunami that will follow the earthquake.

“You want to be fluid, you want to be moving, you want as many options as you can have,” Vanderberg told the participants, who could likely be the “container site leaders” following the disaster.

As the first hour after the earthquake unfolded, the participants were forced to think about what initial actions they would take for their own and their families’ survival, their priorities as managers of the container sites or at the emergency operations center and what recommendations they would make to prepare for the event. They were given scenarios that became increasingly more complex as “survivors” started to arrive at their sites.

As far as Vanderberg knows, Cannon Beach is the first coastal city to conduct tabletop exercises in preparation for a Cascadia event. Soon, the training will go from a small group of city officials and committee members to employees of local businesses who can help tourists find their way to safety.

“What I want to develop in the team is muscle memory,” Vanderberg said. “I want them to know what they will do, where they will do it and when they will do it.”

The Oregon Resilience Plan

Expectations from the tabletop exercise anticipated the estimated recovery times contained in a draft of the Oregon Resilience Plan, released this month by the Oregon Safety Seismic Policy Advisory Commission. The legislative committee wrote the plan to comply with requirements in House Resolution 3, introduced by state Rep. Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach, in 2011.

The plan examines Oregon’s vulnerabilities if a Cascadia earthquake occurs. It recommends that the state develop a plan to replace, retrofit and redesign many of its systems – ranging from fuel transmission facilities to essential buildings, such as schools and fire stations – within the next 50 years.

The plan estimates that it would take three to six months to restore electricity on the coast, one to three years to re-establish drinking water and sewer systems and three years to rebuild health care facilities.

“Oregon is far from resilient to the impacts of a great Cascadia earthquake and tsunami today,” the resilience plan says.

“Available studies estimate fatalities ranging from 1,250 to more than 10,000 because of the combined effects of earthquake and tsunami, tens of thousands of buildings destroyed or damaged so extensively that they will require months to years of repair, tens of thousands of displaced households, more than $30 billion in direct and indirect economic losses … and more than 1 million dump truck loads of debris.”

The exercise continues

Scene 2: Within the first 25 minutes – before the tsunami has approached – a landslide has blocked Old Cannon Road. Although pedestrians can cross the slide to reach the container site on the north side of town, vehicles cannot.

Fires are breaking out in town, buildings have fallen, water lines have burst and power lines are down. The Fir Street Bridge across Ecola Creek has collapsed in three sections, but it is still passable, even though the north end of the bridge requires some climbing. The U.S. Highway 101 overpass is destroyed.

There are problems in other parts of town, too: Houses are tilted off of their foundations, the highway is broken up, the water tower at Tolovana has collapsed and hundreds of survivors have gathered at an assembly area at the Bible Church on Hills Lane just west of the highway.

Then, a tsunami wave, about 30 feet high, comes ashore.

What would you do?

Vanderberg went around the room and asked the two-man groups at each table what they planned to do.

City Manager Rich Mays, who, along with City Councilor Sam Steidel, would establish an emergency operations center at a building still standing on Elk Creek Road near the container site. He would check in with Public Works Director Mark See, who was assigned to manage the containers. They would determine if they still had radio communications.

See said he and Bob Mushen, a member of the city’s Emergency Preparedness Committee, would start recruiting survivors to help the injured and begin setting up a triage station where the most severely injured could be treated first.

Meanwhile, Police Lt. Chris Wilbur and Public Works Foreman Cruz Flores, stationed at the Tolovana Mainline, would tell people to stay away from power lines and refrain from lighting matches or having other open flames. Natural gas may be in the air.

Les Wierson and Doug Wood, also members of the Emergency Preparedness Committee, and assigned to manage the North Cannon Beach container site, said they would begin organizing the survivors who were making it up Old Cannon Road out of the tsunami zone and heading to the container site.

“We’re going to have our hands full,” Wood said. “Time and effort should be taken up with organizing, helping the injured and taking care of people on the slopes” of the steep road leading to the containers.

As each person spoke, Vanderberg and the others asked questions and offered suggestions.

“You guys are in the infant stages of this,” Vanderberg said about the first half-hour after the earthquake. “It’s important that you realize an awful lot of things have to happen in these infant stages.”

The disaster worsens

Scenes 3 through 5 increase in intensity. Nearly 200 survivors eventually arrive at each container site. They are stunned and wet; many have severe injuries. Reports come in about bodies washed out to sea on debris, road blockages, landslides, fires and hundreds more people awaiting help at assembly areas just out of the tsunami zone.

Aftershocks occur and more tsunami waves come ashore an hour after the first earthquake. In the next four hours, three more waves hit Cannon Beach, and aftershocks continue.

Survivors begin to ask when help is coming, where their children and spouses are, how they can return to their homes in other cities, how they can obtain medicine and where they can find food.

Vanderberg asked participants at the tables how they would resolve several issues: the need for communications, fuel, transportation, emergency services, water, food, health care and sewage disposal.

Exercise ‘invaluable’

 The tabletop exercises are “invaluable,” Mays said. “Theory is just that, theory.” But the tabletops help put that theory into practice, he added.

Steidel agreed.

“To me, these drills are equivalent to testing like a scientist would do,” he said. “How are you going to know it’s going to work if you don’t test it?”

For Wierson, the exercise revealed how many resources the city already has, including supplies and volunteers trained to respond to emergencies.

“Our resources are there,” Wierson said. “It’s just a matter of how to use them.

“We’ve just begun,” he added.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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