Forest Grove High School was the venue for Saturday's 'information fair' about getting ready for an emergency.

STAFF PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Stacy Metzger, second from left, and Nancy Monroe, right, talk to attendees of Saturday's town meeting at Forest Grove High School about the Map Your Neighborhood program.This past Saturday's annual town meeting in Forest Grove took a different format than past years, but two things remained constant: It provided people with information about services that are available in the community, and it drew a crowd.

Organizers estimated at least 250 people came out to the open house-style event at Forest Grove High School on Saturday morning, Jan. 26. There, they visited with representatives of agencies like Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, the Forest Grove Police Department and Washington County Emergency Management, who provided brochures, fliers and maps and answered questions about preparing for a disaster scenario.

Nearly 20 booths were set up outside the school auditorium, with both government agencies and private groups represented. Despite the diversity of organizations — ranging from first responders to food cooperatives — all had a common focus on preparedness and resiliency.

City manager: 'Preparedness starts at home'

In the town meeting's sole nod to past years' presentation-based format, the city manager, Jesse VanderZanden, spoke for about 20 minutes about Forest Grove and Cornelius' joint emergency operations plan. The plan includes contingencies for a major earthquake, a damaging windstorm, river flooding and more.

"Any kind of hazard that we have, the type of response we have is going to adjust to that particular hazard," VanderZanden said. "If you have a fire, the response for that is going to be different than if you have a volcanic event, or if you have some kind of earthquake event. There's going to be different resources, different agencies. And so this tries to be a flexible, adaptable model to be able to adapt to those different kinds of hazards."

But while VanderZanden talked up the official plans and drills — plus local fire agencies' experience in responding to both the Scoggins Creek Fire in 2014 and massive conflagrations in California in 2017 — he encouraged attendees to put in their own work to get ready in case of an emergency.

"Emergency preparedness starts at home as well," VanderZanden said.

Stacy Metzger was one of the busiest people at Saturday's event, talking to as many people as she could about a program she helps run in the Forest Grove area called Map Your Neighborhood.

With Map Your Neighborhood, a person puts together an inventory of potential resources — people with pertinent skills and training, items and stockpiles that could be useful, and more — in their own neighborhood, mobile home park or apartment building. They also, as the name suggests, sketch out a physical map of where they live, marking the location of buildings, people, possible assets and possible liabilities, such as gas valves that may need to be shut off, power lines that may need to be avoided, and children or people with disabilities who may need extra help in an emergency.

"The premise is that after an earthquake or disaster, the first responders can't get to everyone," said Metzger, a retired optometrist who now volunteers with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue. "And so your neighbors become your first responders when 9-1-1 is overwhelmed."

At her booth, executive director Launa DeGiusti of the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center gave out info pamphlets like "2 Weeks Ready — Seniors," a handout from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management specifically geared toward preparing older adults to weather a major earthquake.

"I think it's important for people to be prepared," DeGiusti said. "Especially seniors. I think seniors are more under the impression that somebody's going to come in and save them because they're a vulnerable population. … Seniors aren't actually first priority."

Seniors in assisted living or other communities where they eat communal meals and rarely, if ever, cook for themselves, DeGiusti said, are particularly unlikely to be prepared with enough shelf-stable food to last in the days and weeks following a major disaster that leaves them fending for themselves. Pamphlets like the "2 Weeks Ready" handout have advice for seniors on putting together an emergency kit and making a catastrophe plan.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Emergency response agencies like the Forest Grove Police Department will likely have their hands full immediately after a major disaster, so residents are encouraged to make their own plans and preparations.

Many ways to get prepared, connected

Metzger will lead a series of workshops at the senior center in the coming weeks to help both seniors and other community members prepare for a disaster scenario. The first of those classes is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13.

For anyone who is unable to attend, Metzger and fellow Map Your Neighborhood volunteer Nancy Monroe will present — in both English and Spanish — a preparedness how-to program at the 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, meeting of CPO 12F. The Community Participation Organization, one of several that operates in Washington County, meets at the Forest Grove City Library, 2114 Pacific Ave.

Beyond putting together a cache of food and supplies and mapping your neighborhood, there are other ways to get prepared — and provide assistance to others.

Pat Roberson is the emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service in Washington County. It's a loose affiliation of "ham radio" operators, individuals who have a radio powerful enough to communicate with other radio operators via satellite, committed to providing a makeshift news and information network in case of a natural disaster that cripples telephone, cellular and internet services.

"In the event of a disaster where communications are down, we provide that communication via ham radio," Roberson said.

ARES, as it is often abbreviated, hopes to have enough connectivity to cover the entire county in an emergency, as well as connect the county with neighboring jurisdictions and the state government. To that end, Roberson is always looking to recruit new ham radio operators for his service.

The group currently includes about 100 ham radio operators throughout Washington County, Roberson said. Anyone interested in getting involved is encouraged to visit the Washington County ARES/RACES website for more information. Roberson said he can recommend handheld ham radios for as little as $60.

The Oregon Tualatin Valley Amateur Radio Club also provides classes on operating a radio. A full schedule can be found on the club's website.

Forest Grove city officials also encourage people to get connected in another way: by signing up to receive emergency alerts on their cellphones.

As FGF&R Chief Michael Kinkade explained, emergency agencies use a system often referred to as "reverse 9-1-1" to make automated calls to phones in a given area to warn them about emergency situations that may affect them. The system has proven useful in the past for evacuating areas, such as during the Scoggins Creek Fire. But it has a significant flaw in that it only contacts landlines, while a growing share of the population uses a cellphone as their primary or only phone.

Those who want to sign up for cellphone alerts can enter their phone number and address on the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency website to register.

Forest Grove's annual town meeting is organized by the volunteer Committee for Community Involvement.

Organizers said they opted for a more open format this year, believing that an "information fair" style would lend itself better to the topic of disaster preparedness than the more conventional hour-plus presentation or lecture in the Forest Grove Community Auditorium.

"I think the people of this community feel more connected to the agencies that are around them," said committee secretary Tom Cook, describing what he sees as the format's advantages. "They can put a face to an agency."

Cook said he hopes that people came away from the event with "practical tools" to help prepare.

Geologists believe there is nearly a 40 percent chance of a large earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, a region of the Earth's crust about 100 miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest where three continental plates are being forced underneath the larger North American Plate, within the next half-century. Outside of Portland itself, within the Portland metropolitan area, such an event would likely hit Washington County hardest, as it is the westernmost of the metro area's four most populous counties and its largest population centers lie within the fertile, marshy Tualatin Valley.

While experts encourage Oregon residents to be 2 Weeks Ready for a Cascadia earthquake, Metzger's philosophy is that people should get started with a three-day plan, then expand on it as they become more comfortable with emergency preparedness. Her presentations next month will focus on getting started on a budget of just $20.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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