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Sen. Jeff Merkley visits Gresham to talk about emergency preparedness alongside other experts

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited Gresham Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, to talk emergency preparedness. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, has a garage filled with water bottles in case of the "big one."

"I went to Costco one afternoon and bought a lot of gallon jugs — anyone need some water?" he asked with a laugh.

For Merkley, that small personal step is just one way he is illustrating his focus on disaster preparedness for the state of Oregon. The senator was the featured speaker during The East County Issues Forum, hosted by Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, at Gresham City Hall.

The event was a way for individuals and organizations based in East Multnomah County to learn about what would happen in the event of a disaster — from a fire or flood to the much-discussed Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. The packed room of about 60 people got to meet Merkley, hear from disaster preparedness experts, and brainstorm solutions.

"This room is where the real work gets done," Merkley said.

Merkley spoke about what he is working on at the Federal level in terms of programs and funding. He was joined by Chris Voss, director of Multnomah County Emergency Management; Kelle Landavazo, emergency manager for the city of Gresham; and Carolina Gomez, director of integrated facilities services & safety for Home Forward.

"We all know it's not a matter of if, but when," Stegmann said. "(Merkley) has done a tremendous job fighting for us at the national level."

Merkley began by talking about what is happening at the National level to deal with forest fires. He spent a lot of time in East Multnomah County during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, and is looking at ways to prevent destruction at that level in the future.

Funding for the Hazardous Fuel Reduction program has increased, which works to thin forests across the country. In Oregon, 2.3 million acres were approved for thinning — though Merkley said there isn't enough funding to make it happen.

Nationally, there is only $648 million to complete the prevention program. In contrast, there is triple that available for fire suppression.

"If we don't have more resilient forests on the front end, we will have more destructive fires on the back end," he said.

There is also more of a push for a better earthquake alert system. The Federal government is funding better seismic maps to learn where the worst fault zones are, and a major infrastructure bill will address retrofits to make things sturdier.

The one thing everyone can do right now, Merkley said, is prepare their own stock of supplies.

Like the senator's garage full of water, people should have two weeks of water and food, as well as a medical kit.

"I will keep fighting for funding and programs that are most relevant to Oregon," Merkley said.

The East County Issue Forum is a monthly gathering hosted by Stegmann in partnership with local schools and the city of Gresham.

The gathering is open to the public and meets on the first Thursday of the month from 3-5 p.m.

Cascadia Quake

Experts said that East Multnomah County will fare better than other parts of the Portland-metro area during the potential 9.0 magnitude Cascadia Earthquake.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 600-mile fault that runs from northern California to British Columbia. While no one knows exactly when a major earthquake could occur, history points to one in the next couple decades. That quake could reach more than 9.0 in magnitude, with a tsunami of up to 100 feet hitting the coast. The shaking could last 2 to 4 minutes.

"All of this is an in-exact science," said Chris Voss, who helms the county's emergency management team.

The worst possible scenario can be overwhelming. Without retrofits, the county expects the Broadway, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne bridges to all fail. Fuel access would be an issue, as there are no refineries in Oregon, with 95% of gas/diesel arriving via pipeline. Voss also estimated 5% of all Multnomah County buildings could be heavily damaged, with collapses occurring based on the type of structure.

During the East County Issue Forum, Voss gave estimates on how long the region could be without services:

-- Electricity: 1-3 months

-- Police/Fire: 2-4 months

-- Drinking water/sewage: 1-12 months

-- Top-priority highways: 6-12 months

-- Healthcare: 18 months

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