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Emergency operations center may be vulnerable to a tsunami

The county's Emergency Operations Center is at Camp Rilea. (Clatsop County)
By Cindy Yingst, Thursday, June 6, 2019

The center built to handle emergency operations in a catastrophe may itself be vulnerable to a disaster.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center is in Warrior Hall at Camp Rilea.

“The best science at the time indicated that the EOC was in a good location,” said Vincent Aarts, emergency management coordinator for the county.

Shortly after the center’s ribbon-cutting in 2011, a 9.0 quake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that devastated that country.

“As Tohoku happened, it looked like we were in an inundation zone,” Aarts said. “What we’re talking about is the very largest of earthquakes. The EOC is very well placed for every other disaster.”

Plenty have potential to do great harm to Clatsop County: volcanic activity, dam failure, floods and landslides, wildfires, insect infestations, wind and weather emergencies. Man-made disaster could come from bombs, wars, hazardous materials incidents, communications failures, influenza outbreaks, civil disorder and nuclear disaster.

Warrenton and other coastal communities would be particularly vulnerable in a tsunami.

Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer asked to have a discussion on the EOC placed on the agenda for a countywide elected officials meeting last week in Gearhart.

“I don’t care where it is, just get it out of a disaster area,” Balensifer said in explaining the request.

The discussion didn’t get far; it’s hard to come to consensus in a room filled with politicians.

“A move of the EOC is not really a planned project,” Aarts said. “It’s something that’s come up in correlation with planning efforts to move the Public Works Department out of the inundation zone.”

The county’s public works facility is on Olney Avenue along the banks of Youngs Bay. Moving it to Crown Camp, an old log-sorting yard off Lewis and Clark Road in the hills above Seaside makes sense. Placing the public works equipment, supplies and offices there will give it a more central location, too.

Included in the discussion with countywide politicians was the possibility of combining 911 services; while most agencies use Astoria Dispatch Center for emergency communications, Seaside has a separate dispatch center.

Balensifer said he first became aware of the problems of separated services when he went on a ride-along with a sheriff’s deputy in 2013.

There was a call in Hamlet of a disturbance involving seven people and the deputy had no cell reception and had to switch communications from one dispatch center to another, one frequency to another, Balensifer said.

“It got me thinking. Why does this county, small as it is, have two dispatch centers?”

He’s not suggesting moving Seaside’s operations to Astoria’s dispatch center, which is nearly at sea level.

“We’re moving schools to get the out of the tsunami zone, so why aren’t we taking care of communications,” Balensifer asked. “It’s all great to prepare, but even in wartime, communications is the first thing to go out.”

County Commissioner Mark Kujala, whose district includes Warrenton, agrees.

“Certainly with 911 service is makes more sense. There’s an economy of scale, a consolidation of information to make sure it gets to the right people as fast as possible,” Kujala said.

He was less enthusiastic about discussions to move the EOC.

“When we made the decision after the Storm of 2007, it was wise to bring it to Camp Rilea. It really is protected from everything except the worst … (earthquake/tsunami scenario). There’s always going to be something. Regardless of where you locate it, it’s never going to be the ideal location.”

On vacation in Florida, Kujala missed the countywide meeting.

“I’m pleased the 911 consolidation came up,” he said Wednesday. “It’s something we need to pursue and investigate. I hope to bring it to the county’s discussion.”

Clatsop County's Emergency Operations Center is activated during any major disaster. It was built after the 2007 storm that devastated Clatsop County, knocking out power, cellular service and roads. (Clatsop County)

Mayor Henry Balensifer

County Commissioner Mark Kujala

Vincent Aarts, county emergency management director

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