Audit: Oregon isn’t prepared for natural disaster

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PORTLAND, Ore.(KOIN) — Is Oregon prepared for a possible, and probably inevitable, catastrophic disaster? 

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and the office’s audit team believe the answer is no. 

On Thursday morning, the secretary of state’s office released an audit report directed toward Gov. Kate Brown and the state’s Office of Emergency Management, providing 11 recommendations to make the state more prepared for emergencies that they call “unpredictable” and “inevitable.” 

In particular, the audit urges the state to improve emergency management before “The Big One,” a massive earthquake that could rattle the entire West Coast. 

Here’s how the audit report defines that possibility: 

One of the most well-publicized risks is from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake along the entire 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone with subsequent tsunamis and aftershocks. This event is predicted to destroy transportation and fuel infrastructure across the Pacific Northwest, cost Oregon more than $30 billion in direct and economic losses, and result in anywhere from 1,250 to more than 10,000 deaths.

There is no way to prevent such an event from happening. Yet with effective emergency management, government officials can take action in advance to minimize the damage.

Part of the preparedness, the secretary of state’s office says, includes meeting standards toward the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. The audit says Oregon doesn’t meet several of them.

Geology professor Scott Burns said, “Seventy-five percent of our infrastructure, our buildings, our houses, our bridges were built before that period of time. Everything is out of code. It’s just not designed.”

Andrew Phelps, director of the Office of Emergency Management, gave KOIN 6 News several points of how Oregon isn’t prepared for a disaster and the state can improve.

“We could always be doing more exercises and additional training. I think that’s a huge component of any emergency management program. I think we can also look at how we are staffed — not just here at OEM, but local emergency managers,” Phelps said.

Phelps also said that a lot of the state’s buildings and structures are “seismically vulnerable.” However, a transportation package was recently passed — which will fund some seismic retrofits and upgrade transportation infrastructure. 

Part of the issue, according to the audit report, is Oregon’s staff size. It says Oregon has the 12th smallest Office of Emergency Management staff in the country. The audit suggests this could have implications, including financial, if the state were to encounter a catastrophic disaster. 

“I would say surviving a Cascadia earthquake isn’t probable, but possible,” Phelps said.

Among other recommendations, the audit requested more accountability for The Oregon Resilience Plan, a taskforce formed in 2013 to reduce risk for the next earthquake and tsunami.The audit suggests some recommendations from the plan have been enacted, but a lack of accountability could “risk that momentum could be lost and they could be abandoned.”

The Office of Emergency Management and Gov. Kate Brown were very receptive to the recommendations made by the Secretary of State’s Office. Letters including acknowledgement of the recommendations and responses — every recommendations was agreed upon except one by Brown, because she said it’s already been accomplished — were included in the audit. 

After the audit was released, Brown said in a statement,

“For Oregon communities and our economy to thrive, we must ensure our state is resilient and able to quickly recovery from a catastrophic event. We’ve taken critical steps toward bolstering statewide resilience in recent years, and I commit to continuing to work with the Legislature to ensure state agencies and local jurisdictions are even better prepared. As Oregonians, we all have a stake in building a more resilient Oregon.”

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