Audit: Oregon not quite prepared for The Big One
SALEM — Oregon lacks enough staff, planning and accountability to effectively handle a catastrophic disaster such as the looming Cascadia earthquake, state auditors say.
"Officials at all levels of state government have begun laying the necessary foundation, but these efforts have not gone far enough to fully protect Oregon from the worst-case scenario," auditors wrote. "...Too many basic elements for a well-functioning program are still missing."
Oregon is at risk of both recurring disasters, such as flooding and wildfires, as well as catastrophic disasters, such as an act of terror or volcanic eruption. And scientists have said in recent years that there is now a higher probability that a high-magnitude earthquake — referred to as the "Cascadia" event — will strike Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in the next 50 years.
The state's Office of Emergency Management and the governor's office are both responsible for coordinating and managing Oregon's response to a natural disaster or other large-scale emergency. Other state agencies and local governments also play a role. State agencies have been designated to support the Office of Emergency Management, and each county is required by state law to have an emergency management program. Cities can also "opt in" to the program. However, the audit also found that these entities' preparedness for an emergency were insufficient.
The secretary of state's office, in an audit released Thursday morning, laid out a slate of ways the state could improve.
Here's what auditors found:
• Oregon's emergency management program doesn't meet basic federal standards. That means top officials will not have all the information they need to respond to a big disaster, and that the state may miss out on millions of dollars in federal emergency response funding.
• The state has failed to correct gaps identified during a 2016 emergency response drill, Cascadia Rising, that was meant to evaluate the state's emergency response effort to a simulated Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Since the plan is incomplete, "the public has no assurance that Oregon will take steps to resolve deficiencies identified in the exercise," auditors wrote.
• There's not enough emergency management staff. Previous requests for more staff haven't been filled by the Legislature, and the lack of staff hampers the Office of Emergency's Management's ability to do its job, auditors say.
• State emergency response buildings are not seismically sound. While some buildings, such as the military department's Anderson Readiness Center, are being retrofitted, and back-up buildings have been identified, the state's emergency management office hasn't practiced operating from the back-up sites, some of which aren't seismically sound either.
• A 50-year resilience plan, created in 2013 to address the state's ability to respond to a catastrophic disaster, doesn't contain strong enough accountability measures to ensure that progress is made. The state also has a dedicated "State Resilience Officer," who auditors said would benefit from more "long-term strategies, tracking, public reporting and clearly defined roles and responsibilities" as well.
Unless the state takes steps to improve these emergency preparedness measures, state auditors are warning that "the effects of a catastrophic event could be even more severe."
The state's Office of Emergency Management and the office of Gov. Kate Brown largely concurred with auditors recommendations; however, Brown said in a letter to auditors that the responsibilities of the state resilience officer were already clearly defined.