Earth to Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler: disaster preparedness planning for Multnomah County is your responsibility. Appointing an emergency management director with the tactical and strategic experience to do a good job is step one. Making sure that your pick handles the responsibility is step two. How did you miss the problems in Multnomah County's Department of Emergency Management?
Recently thousands fled the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Gustav threatened to overwhelm New Orleans. Fortunately, Gustav was less devastating than feared. Thanks to leaders and citizens who learned Katrina's lessons, New Orleans was prepared.
Portland is another story. Let's get one myth out of the way immediately. Some people think natural disasters will never hit hard in Portland. Not true. Just this year a storm devastated the Northwest coast, flooded sections of I-5 and destroyed much of Vernonia. A winter storm paralyzed the city in 2004. Other natural threats such as fires and floods are thought to be more likely as global warming continues. The Pacific Northwest is vulnerable to a major earthquake at any time. And that's before we begin to think about terrorism, whether homegrown like the Oklahoma City bombing or from abroad, like the 9/11 attacks. Disasters can and do happen here. That's why The Skanner has taken a strong interest in how communities can prepare to survive a disaster. We know informed and prepared citizens can help themselves and their neighbors ride out any storms.
For families, preparing a disaster kit and plan is simple, easy and effective. For government, coordination among emergency responders is essential. Despite some good work from regional emergency management, neither the city nor the county has succeeded in branding emergency preparedness for the general public. Portland has no effective public preparedness campaign. Glance at our neighbor to the north, Seattle, and you'll see accessible public information campaigns with a strong message. Visit Multnomah County's emergency management Web site and you come away thinking disaster preparedness is a secret – and a stale one at that.
When we dialed the contact numbers we were connected to a snow warning – in July. Look for useful content on personal and family preparedness and you're out of luck, unless you somehow decide to surf the aging and disability and health department pages. The Skanner's 2007 editorials listed 33 ways to destroy a city. The first two steps were, one, needless delays and, two, lack of a public evacuation plan. Check both for Multnomah County. The third way to destroy a city is to appoint an inexperienced manager. Multnomah County's former director, George Whitney, came highly recommended, but according to reports from other agencies, his ability to work with regional partners went AWOL. Whitney deserves credit for his efforts to pin down the location of missing equipment, a task now in the hands of the County Auditor. Apparently he made no friends when he set out to track down missing emergency vehicles, a generator and other expensive items, designed to support emergency responders.
A report on homeland security released in July by the non-partisan Project for National Security Reform says the entire system is broken.
It notes that efforts to secure the nation are undermined by lack of coordination and turf battles from the national level down. The Homeland Security Department has mandated a hierarchical responsibility structure that trickles down from states to the counties, then to cities and regions. However, it distributes its biggest bucks directly to cities and regions, creating a set-up for territorial squabbling. Other mandates leave states and local emergency managers without sufficient resources for administration. Nevertheless, given good relationships among agencies, turf battles can be overcome. In Portland, we'd like to see the city and county working together from a joint emergency command center. The city says it needs a new emergency management base, so why don't the city and the county consider a shared center? Somehow Chair Wheeler managed to miss his director's problems in coordinating with other people – problems that were apparent to regional leaders at last year's homeland security exercise. We know the big man is dealing with plenty of major challenges -- the collapse of mental health care to name just one. But did nobody at the county go to Wheeler and suggest he take a look at this crucial department? Even if Wheeler was not offered timely feedback, he missed the big picture:
that disaster preparedness needs an accessible, well defined, properly funded public awareness campaign. And it simply is not happening here. What Do You Think?