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September 14th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

LESSONS FROM KATRINA

Portland isn't ready for the worst.

     
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Local government and the International Red Cross put up this shelter in record time last week at Southeast Portland's Washington-Monroe High School to accommodate Katrina victims. But what if a disaster happens here?
IMAGE: TIM GUNTHER
Our mid-September afternoon sun and clear skies make it hard to worry about New Orleans-size devastation ever happening here. And officials are quick to say Oregonians shouldn't fret too much.

"I think Oregon is very prepared," state Emergency Management Director Ken Murphy said at a press conference last week. "People should be proud."

City emergency planners are doing a "great job," says Mike McGuire, the deputy fire chief who heads Portland's Office of Emergency Management. "We've got the system in place; it can expand for any size of event."

But interviews with other local emergency planners suggest those optimistic pronouncements blur Hurricane Katrina's lessons, namely that people should have seen it coming and, once it came, no agency took charge.

Those complaints, some say, may equally be a problem in Portland.

"As we learned in Louisiana, there has to be someone in charge who knows what to do," says Dr. Bill Long, Legacy Emanuel Hospital's chief trauma director and a participant in regional emergency planning efforts. "When planning is too diffuse, no one is in charge-and nothing happens."

As far as seeing the disaster coming, the Big Quake could happen "any day now," says James Roddey of the state Department of Geology. "Here in Portland, there is going to be an incredible amount of damage."

Roddey's main concern is the fault off the Oregon Coast, which is gathering pressure like a knuckle waiting to crack. When it does pop, the resulting magnitude-9 earthquake will be bigger than anything ever in California, as big as what hit Sumatra last year, and its effects could rival Katrina's, Roddey says. The tremors from that could conceivably trigger three smaller earthquake faults running through the heart of Portland. Says Roddey, "Bottom line is, no matter how much work Portland has done, nobody is ready."

Health officials say another top concern is the avian flu, strains of which appear to be rapidly evolving and which experts say could wipe out millions worldwide in the very near future-like a new bubonic plague. Other concerns cited by emergency officials include a Sandy River flood, the volcano under Mount Hood, and, of course, a terrorist attack, either nuclear or biological.

OK, so there are dangers. How prepared are we?

In an emergency, most officials say the strongest part of the system is the "first responders," the police and fire. But beyond that, some have concerns about how well government will respond.

Key emergency agencies at the city, county, state and federal level all have separate plans, including running their own emergency command centers. The integration between plans is somewhat "organic," says county emergency manager Tom Simpson-but others call it unstructured and hypothetical. Legacy's Long says he is concerned that emergency planning has been left to "little kingdoms" with "no central planning or command structure" that puts one agency in charge.

Besides the predictable bureaucratic nightmare of coordination, perhaps the biggest vulnerability Portland faces is medical care, particularly if what officials call a "mass-casualty event" hits.

Long, the Legacy Emanuel trauma director, says there has been no systematic effort to map out the area's medical capacity to plan for a sustained emergency: "I've been asking for that for years."

Complicating things is that hospitals locally are stocked for only 48 hours of operation, with new supplies having to be trucked in from Wilsonville. This makes the east side's hospitals particularly vulnerable if an earthquake or other disaster closes down the bridges across the Willamette and Columbia.

Not only that, but Portland hospitals are operated at or near capacity-which is "fairly unique" in the nation, says Dr. Gary Oxman, Multnomah County health director. The region has only two hospitals certified to treat serious trauma victims, OHSU on the west side of the Willamette and Legacy Emanuel on the east side. Their combined excess capacity to operate on trauma victims ranges from just four to eight patients at any one time.

The region does have a plan to set up medical tents in parks to assist hospitals; additionally, helicopters would transport patients to hospitals outside Portland. But as for medical tents, the county's Jim Spitzer, health department emergency planner, concedes that the locals' ability to operate more than two or three such facilities remains "tenuous."

Oxman says the region is ahead of most, and that within a year a plan should be in place to address potential disasters. Contracts and grants have been awarded to encourage hospitals to gear up supplies and readiness. He says planning is "going well from our perspective, but there's a lot of work to be done."

 
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