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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oops! We mixed up duelling emergency bureaus.

Well, we screwed up pretty good here yesterday. We were reporting on the moves that Portland's mayor and city auditor are making on the city's office of emergency management, and we mistakenly identified that bureau as the one that handles 911 calls. Silly us! No, 911 calls are handled by the bureau of emergency communications, which is a completely different entity, run by a different city council member, from the office of emergency management. The latest audit is not about the 911 folks, who handle every call from an individual needing help; it's about the agency that's charged with getting the city prepared for a major calamity affecting large segments of the population at the same time.

But as we said, to an observant eye it seems likely that the sudden spotlight being thrown on the emergency management office is connected to the Sam-Rand Twins' latest megalo-move. That is, to blow $10 million to buy a big parcel of real estate -- from The Oregonian, of all people -- for an "emergency staging" area. Any such facility would be run by the same office that was the target of the audit.

Our gaffe has us brooding about some bigger questions, however. If a big disaster strikes, does it make sense to have one city commissioner calling the shots on 911 response, yet another commissioner running "emergency management," potentially a third one running the police bureau, and maybe a fourth one running the fire bureau? When we penned our erroneous blog post yesterday, perhaps we were subconsciously assuming a far more rational form of government than the one Portland currently has.

Comments (9)

Some of the posts yesterday touched on this subject, but it bears repeating: A large scale calamity is likely to totally overwhelm any emergency services that may still be available. A much more useful expenditure of funds would be to go out into the neighborhood associations and train volunteers for emergency first aid, building tempory shelters, purifying water, taking care of sanitation, shutting off natural gas, etc. - in other words, all of the survival skills it would take to wait out a few days until the "real" emergency services are again able to respond.

Any "permanent staging area" is more likely to be used to deal only with saving infrastructure in that immediate area - and we have a precedent to point to here: The February 1996 floods caused the city to rally to build a temporary wall to hold back the Willamette, had it crested higher than the harbor wall at Waterfront Park. Forget about the rest of the area's suffering; we had to save the City Hall and the downtown moneyed interests! I would offer that this is really all that this is about.

Google "CERT" (Community Emergency Response Training) for more information on the type of program you have in mind, JR.

And read Solnit's "Paradise Made in Hell" -- Solnit looked at the history of massive natural disasters and noticed something shocking to the elites: Ordinary people behave quite well and capably in emergencies. The real destruction starts after the disaster when the elites decide that they need to reassert control. It's a very enlightening book.

Good thoughts John.

If a major disaster strikes, one thing is certain: our city councilors will be overwhelmed and not up to the job. Remember that for the most part these "department heads" have zero experience in the actual operations they are "managing".

In that sense, it doesn't matter who is officially in charge of what. Still it would be good for the responders on the ground to have good communications with each other.

I can't imagine Mayor Silly having one ounce of leadership ability during a major disaster. As a matter of fact, it scares me to death just thinking about Captain Underpants at the helm when the ship is going down. Seriously.

As was also pointed out yesterday, we only have to look to the ineptitude of the city and other public agencies during the snowstorms of recent years -- rare but not exactly unpredictable events -- to know they would be next to useless in the event of an earthquake, massive flood, or other truly catastrophic event. And in the unlikely case that any sizable number of emergency personnel are able to rally themselves and their equipment to a central location in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, they can do so in any open space or pile of rubble they damn well please. Randy has to know this, which is why his lusting after that property for a staging site has the strong whiff of a real-estate scam-in-the-making about it. How much do you want to bet in 2 years he decides it's not exactly what he's looking for after all and it's sold to Joe or Homer for a dollar?

Like John suggested, the money for the staging site would be better spent in preparing Portlanders to help themselves long enough after a disaster until services can be restored. A particularly good place to invest would be in the Neighborhood Emergency Teams, trained volunteers who are supposed to organize disaster response at the neighborhood level. The city has really neglected them; they basically have to hold bake sales to buy any equipment. True, some of them are poorly organized or staffed and can be a a bit of a joke, but they stand the best chance of organizing any type of local, official response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

The money could also be spent on housing subsidies for police officers and firefighters so they can live within city limits. Think all of them that live in Vancouver now are going to be able to get across the river to their posts after an Earthquake? In the case of the police, this would have the added benefit of having them actually live among the people they police, which can only help improve police/community relations.

Wait a year or so and they can buy the Oregonian's main plant cheap at the bankruptcy sale (unless the City goes bust first). You know, the grim concrete fortress up by Goldman Sachs Stadium, where they print the editorials condemning new buildings for being 'unfriendly' to passersby? It might even be astride a fault line, which would fit the City's planning competence just fine.

You are correct, John. A 7.5 magnitude quake would have the ground under us slamming up and down 6-7 feet in the air continuously for several minutes. Name a structure in Portland that could withstand that. So the auditors sudden awareness that our "infastructure is not ready" is a timely piece to set the stage and promote the twins real-estate scam involving the Oregonians parcel of land.

That property sure would be an asset to the city if the zoning were to allow a Costco or Wal-Mart. Think of the jobs created and taxes that would be paid if that were to happen. But I seem to remember something about our mayor not liking Wal-Mart!

I seem to recall that Costco had wanted to build a store at that site years ago, and the Portland loaded up demands for traffic studies and found that it would generate too much traffic - and denied the application.

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