Gearhart attempts to ‘shake out’ more interest in preparing for emergencies

DAN JESSE

The Gearhart Community Emergency Response Team’s participation in the Great ShakeOut highlighted some of the community’s successes when it comes to emergency preparedness as well as the challenges that must be overcome to continue progress.

Along with hundreds of other agencies across country, Gearhart’s team encouraged residents at 10:16 a.m. Oct. 16 to “drop, cover and hold” for 60 seconds, to simulate an earthquake, and then head to the appropriate tsunami evacuation assembly area.

“I don’t think people have a good understanding of what we’re going to be up against in a Cascadia subduction event,” CERT leader Dan Jesse said. “I think it’s going to be fairly dreadful, ... and any preparation we do ahead of time will make that experience a little less dreadful.”

Gearhart’s CERT program started in November 2013, so this was the first year the team participated in the Great ShakeOut. Almost all CERT members participated and they successfully used their walkie-talkies to coordinate with people at different assembly sites, Jesse said. Gearhart City Hall also closed so staff members could do the exercise.

Community participation, however, was lackluster. The team was hoping about 100 people would do the drill; fewer than a dozen, or less than 1 percent of Gearhart’s population, did.

In general, Jesse said, it has been difficult to increase community participation in emergency preparedness, possibly because people misunderstand what that means. A person does not need to have the physical fitness level or skill set of a firefighter or other emergency responders to join the cause, he said. Even if people get basic training or donate what skills they have, they can help carry the burden.

“The government is not coming to rescue us if we have a major event. The police officers and the firefighters and staff people are first and foremost going to worry about their families,” Jesse said. “The first responders really have to be us as a community, banding together.”

City Administrator Chad Sweet agreed. The only way the community can survive the event and limit its damage is by neighbors helping neighbors, and being prepared, he said.

“This would be more powerful if people in the community put this together as volunteers,” Sweet added.

Jesse hopes the CERT program can provide training and educational opportunities to help citizens prepare themselves. The program also is open to those who don’t live in Gearhart.

The city itself is making preparations, Jesse said, “and we’re getting better at it.” A few years ago, there was virtually no emphasis put on emergency preparedness; now the city has a CERT program and people are more aware of the potential natural hazards in the area.

Something changed after the large storm in 2007, said Mayor Dianne Widdop. Before then, she said, people rarely worried about tsunamis.

“At that point, it hit home,” she said. “All of a sudden we started thinking, ‘what do we need? What do we do?’”

Even though the community is better off than it was five years ago, Widdop said, more can be done.

She wants the community to develop a Map Your Neighborhood program where each neighborhood gathers information about its residents, such as who has emergency training, who has certain equipment, who has special needs and similar data.

During the 2007 storm, Sweet said, there was an elderly couple that no one from the neighborhood checked on. They lost the ability to take care of themselves, and the man was dead when they were found. Those are the kind of incidents that Map Your Neighborhood could help prevent, he added.

Widdop wants people to know what to do when they get to assembly sites, including securing food and shelter and giving and receiving medical attention. Getting there may be a struggle, though, because the city lacks evacuation route signs.

While some signs are posted, Jesse, Widdop and Sweet agreed there could be more signs to direct people to the assembly areas.

Gearhart has five evacuation sites. Four of the locations ­— near Pine Ridge, Summit Lane, Marion Avenue and Sheridan Drive — are west of U.S. Highway 101 and designated as optional tsunami assembly areas. That means people should evacuate to those areas only as a last resort. The fifth evacuation site, at the end of Salminen Lane and the only one outside of the hazard area, is obscured, especially for those unfamiliar with the area. There are no signs on Pacific Way, McCormick Gardens Road or the Salminen Lane street sign that point to the assembly areas.

In late summer, Jesse and some Gearhart Planning Commission members attended a charette held by the University of Oregon’s Portland Urban Architecture Research Lab. The focus of the round table discussion was how to improve signage and awareness in the various coastal communities for the group’s project, titled “Up and Out: Oregon Tsunami Wayfinding Research Project.” The meeting raised questions such as whether or not the traditional blue signs with a wave are best, where signs should be positioned and if there can be so many signs that they are ineffective.

The information is important not only for citizens, but also visitors who are less familiar with the area’s geography, Jesse said.

“Is there a good answer yet? No. Is there a group working on it? Yes,” he said.

Financial constraints limit the work that can be done for emergency preparedness, Jesse said. The city has a small staff in comparison to Gearhart’s approximate population of 1,460 residents, and also a relatively low property tax rate.

The city will have to rely on alternate funding sources to improve emergency preparedness, so it is does not “rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

“I would love to see us do a better job, but we need to get more participation from the community ­— more volunteer hours — or find a new revenue stream, or probably both,” Jesse said.

Sweet agreed it would take both the city doing what it can to improve infrastructure, facilitate initiatives and guide the process, but residents also must prepare themselves.

“First and foremost we need to rely on ourselves,” he said.

For more information or to access tsunami maps, visit www.gearhartfire.com/tsunami.html. Hard copies also can be picked up at Gearhart City Hall and the Gearhart Fire Department.

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