Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a three-part series that will look at the state of emergency preparedness in the Cottage Grove area, examine solutions and identify possible future threats.
This year has been a trial by fire — and water — for the Cottage Grove area. In a three-month span, locals found themselves subject to a diversity of disasters which tested the resolve and readiness of not just individuals, but the systems in place to guard against such onslaughts of nature.
Beginning with a once-in-a-century snowstorm at the end of February, heavy rain and flooding followed in April only to be topped off with a massive hillside fire outside the city on Dowens Road a month later.
While many viewed the ordeal as a wake-up call, coordinators of some response efforts saw the events as proof, to a degree, of readiness.
Lane County Emergency Manager Patence Winningham, who had freshly accepted the position only four days before the snowstorm, found Cottage Grove to be a relatively unassuming hum among the cries for county assistance during the incident.
“I actually didn’t hear a whole lot from Cottage Grove based on wants and needs, which is outstanding,” she said.
Cottage Grove city officials chalk that up to a level of self-reliance that fortified the city against the storm’s severity.
“For the snowstorm, we were independent and successfully there,” said City Manager Richard Meyers. “If it had been a snowstorm that stayed in blizzard conditions for the whole week, it would have taxed our equipment, our resources and we would have needed somebody else’s help.”
The other disasters, while less severe, caused evacuations along the affected areas. Flooding saw historic rates of water released from Dorena Reservoir to prevent overflow and the fire put a network of about a dozen agencies to the test, seeing at least 86 emergency personnel respond to the event.
While each disaster posed its own challenges and learning moments, the snowstorm stood out most saliently as a small taste of what a truly catastrophic incident such as the Cascadia earthquake might bring.
Though no deaths directly related to the storm were reported by PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center or emergency services, damage to the area was extensive and some residents reported more than two feet of snow. Many roads outside of town were impassable, blockaded by fallen trees and barriers of snow, effectively cutting off many rural residents from in-city resources. Fuel stations and grocery stores were understaffed and overwhelmed by throngs of customers stocking up. A state of emergency was declared.
In a damage assessment scheduled to be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today, the full index of damage and costs estimates a $251,175 price tag.
In response to the carnage, emergency services became inundated with calls and incidents.
From Monday through Thursday the week of the storm, police department data reported 44 welfare checks, 60 fire or medical calls and 10 burglary alarm responses. In all, 328 emergency and 875 non-emergency calls came in, bloating the phone lines to two or three times the normal amount.
Power companies, too, scrambled to respond to a high volume of inquiries and outage reports. When the sun broke on the first day, Cottage Grove was completely without power save for those with generators. The city’s main electricity provider, Pacific Power, reported more than 3,300 Cottage Grove customers affected by the power outages and 44,000 throughout its coverage area, though the company fully restored power by the end of the week.
Despite the seeming disorder, city and county officials remain largely pleased with Cottage Grove’s response to the disasters.
Meyers felt that the city’s habit of looking ahead set it apart from other Lane County cities outside the Eugene-Springfield area.
“That’s one of the reasons we were successful,” he said. “Let’s plan for the next thing and if we don’t need it, let’s put it away afterwards. … That helped us a lot, that we were constantly thinking of that.”
Though the city’s speed of plowing during the snowstorm was a source of frustration among some residents, Meyers credits the upgrading of the plow equipment last fall as easing much of the strain.
“If we’d had the older equipment it would’ve been much more difficult to have handled the situa-tion,” he said.
Keeping main arteries open to traffic for basic resources came first and, as welfare check requests and emergency incidents began to roll in, the city also prioritized its plows to clear the way for emergency responders before finally getting around to smaller residential streets.
At the time, South Lane County Fire and Rescue Division Chief Joe Raade spoke to The Sentinel about the district’s response.
“The fire district was able to weather the storm well and is definitely prepared for the next time this occurs,” he said.
City facilities such as water and wastewater treatment plants also proved to be ready for inundation.
“We didn’t have any hiccups or any issues as far as backed-up sewer lines. Our waste treatment plant functioned,” said Cottage Grove Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart. Though, “It was touch and go. It was close to capacity.”
Keeping basic operations up and running during the power outage caused by the snowstorm was instrumental to much of the city’s ability to respond effectively. Generators at treatment plants and other municipal facilities passed this test.
Additionally, city data had been stored electronically and moved to an online cloud.
“So, we could still go operate anywhere,” said Meyers. “Any place that had electricity we could go and run the city.”
With this technology, Meyers predicted that if a large enough catastrophe struck, the city could still set up in a tent with a generator.
“Those kinds of things we’ve put together — we just hope we never have to use,” he said.
Attendance of city staff remained high during the snowstorm as well, a characteristic owed to staff being individually prepared enough to come to work, assured that their families were safe at home.
“Virtually every one of the employees got to work in the middle of the storm and stayed here and worked with their focus on the city’s well-being,” said Stewart. “Our staff is a strength. We have seasoned employees with long tenure and are very skilled in multiple areas.”
During the snowstorm, the city opened a warming center at the Community Center and arranged for American Red Cross stations during both the snowstorm and flooding.
The city had also stocked up on bags and sand to prepare for warmer March weather after the snow.
“We went ahead and brought in a couple more dump truck loads of sand with concerns that the snowmelt might cause some flooding,” said Stewart.
A sandbag filling site was set up and concerned citizens eagerly accepted the gift, a token of the city’s foresight.
“As a matter of policy, we try to keep some level of material on site and available,” Stewart said.
Then post-disaster, the question was raised of what to do with all the natural debris. In response, lot space was made for fallen branches and trees, giving an opportunity for citizens to help clean up their neighborhoods. A gnarled hill formed from the amount of wood hauled in before it was ground down to chips.
Selling three quarters of the wood chips to a local company covered hauling costs and the rest of the chips have been left for citizens to use as needed. The city plans to use the remainder for parks and beautifying other city sites.
“There were a lot of positive comments from citizens in the community who really felt that that was just a great offering the city did by giving them a place to bring their storm damage and then make the product available for them, too,” Stewart said. “It worked out really well.”
A month later, the flooding event had comparatively minor impact, especially within city limits.
“For the most part, we didn’t suffer a lot of damage from the flood event,” said Stewart. “It was more toward Creswell and some of the county areas.”
City concerns revolved around keeping water flow areas free of debris and finding a dry place for affected residents coming from the outskirts of the city. And because the city had already restocked sand and sandbags in anticipation of a quick snowmelt, citizen access to these was swiftly laid out.
A discrepancy between impacts within city lines and in county jurisdiction was partly due to higher standards in city limits, which stipulate that houses in flood zones are raised two feet above base flood elevation; Lane County’s standard is just one foot.
“We have a lot of things that the city has already been doing for many decades,” said Cottage Grove City Planner Amanda Ferguson.
Tactics to curb the threat of flooding include buying up properties with housing dangerously close to rivers, effectively running treatment facilities, using ponds as flood storage areas, maintaining a storm water system, street sweeping programs and using the city’s golf course as irrigation and flood storage.
Ferguson, who is also the flood plain manager and community rating system (CRS) manager for the city, has used these aspects to bring lower insurance costs to Cottage Grove.
CRS is a FEMA-instigated community program that rewards local floodplain management activities that exceed the minimum standards of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
For those in a 100-year flood zone, such insurance is required.
With the CRS program, discounts are available based on point scoring. Entering the program at a score of 10, each point downward to 1 awards everyone within a jurisdiction five percent off their NFIP flood insurance policy.
“Just to come in at a 10 is quite a hurdle,” said Ferguson. “We came in at a 7 last year. We have the capacity to go down to a 5 as soon as our building department has been here long enough to get rated.”
After meeting that three-year requirement of the building department, a 25 percent discount may be available to those in the area.
“There are all sorts of pieces of the puzzle,” Ferguson said. “When we looked at the community rating system, we realized we didn’t have to change anything we were doing and we would get a really high rate.”
With the application approved last year, 2019 billing recipients should see a 15 percent drop in cost.
Though incentive remains to further raise the standards within Cottage Grove floodplains, much of the waterflow control rests with management of reservoirs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Coast Fork is 90 percent controlled by the release out of Cottage Grove Lake Reservoir,” Ferguson said. “And the Row River, when it hits Cottage Grove, is about 40 percent controlled by the release out of Dorena.”
All things considered, Ferguson believes the city met its disaster challenges admirably this year.
“I think it would be an A-minus,” she said. “Nobody’s ever perfect.”
Other city officials echoed Ferguson’s evaluation.
“I just feel like we have a really good leadership team here that has experience and the ability to address critical thinking and how to get through what’s ahead of us,” said Stewart. “Not only thinking about the moment, but thinking about, ‘What’s the future?’”
For all the high marks reported on emergency responsiveness, city officials admit there is always room for improvement.
“I would say the first place we learned we lacked was coordination with entities within our own community,” said Stewart.
Questions remain on whether communication could have been improved in quality and speed with emergency services and the school district.
Messages to the public, for example, sometimes provided contrary information or needed updating.
On the county level, communication with the county’s newly formed emergency operations center was somewhat bare.
“Maybe we didn’t communicate well enough with them as they set up their emergency command center,” Stewart said. “They reached out midway through the process and asked if we needed any-thing, but we were feeling really comfortable about how we were addressing things and didn’t feel like we needed any additional support here.”
Winningham speculated that part of that lack of communication was the fact that the county’s emergency operations center had previously directed most of its help to the sheriff’s office and many were unaware of its new capacity.
“Now it’s evolving,” she said. “The commissioners have pulled the program out from under the sheriff’s office and made it its own program that supports the entire organization and the community, too. That’s where I came on board.”
For Stewart, having access to the proper information is half the battle and more county-to-city information exchange could prove useful.
“It’s like everything: knowing the resources that are out there and plugging into them,” he said.
During a post-disaster debriefing by Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd, city officials also learned of an overlooked segment of the population.
“We have a pretty vulnerable population when power is out for a while,” Stewart said.
Refilling oxygen tanks and getting access to medication can be critical concerns for some in these conditions.
During the snowstorm’s power outage, the PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center provided aid, food and rest for people in the area seeking help and oxygen.
“When we had the debrief, that’s another area I think we could really help each other,” said Stewart, “is having a better communications system with the hospital.”
Meanwhile, the city’s Wi-Fi hut ran into its own snag.
“We did discover some weaknesses regarding fueling our generators,” said Ferguson.
Getting fuel to the city’s Wi-Fi propane generators during the snowstorm was a challenge due to the danger on the road posed to the provider. Also, other companies refused to touch it as they weren’t certified.
“So, we need to diversify our fuel source,” Ferguson said. “And that’s a good thing to learn.”
‘It Boils Down to the Individual’
While the city devised and implemented its own disaster response, households in and out of the city dealt with struggles of their own. Stories of neighborly rescues and assistance began to emerge before the snow had stopped falling, many coming from the rural roads where hundreds of downed trees had created scenes evocative of a post-apocalyptic world.
In one case, Gene Hursh, a Harrisburg grass seed farmer with acreage in the Cottage Grove area, cruised the roads around Dorena with his nephews, looking for people to help.
April Klein of Sallee Road was one of the lucky recipients of Hursh’s kindness.
“We were buried,” Klein said. “You couldn’t even get out of your driveway to get to the store, to go to work, to go into town to get water if you needed it – nothing.”
Klein estimated about 17 to 20 people were trapped on the road, but after flagging Hursh down, “It freed everybody,” she said. “It was just such a nice thing.”
Hursh said he cleared the road for “about a dozen or more” houses all together, working for two days to help people as far as Pleasant Hill. One family in particular, Hursh remembered, had no electricity or even a wood heating system.
“They were really cold,” he said. “They were very grateful to be able to get out of there and get back into town.”
For those in a rural setting, such values of self-sufficiency and community reliance become exceedingly evident during a disaster.
“I think a lot of these rural communities have figured out that they’re on their own and its neigh-bors helping neighbors,” said Winningham. “Communities do come together in the face of disaster and they help each other.”
Among the projects on Winningham’s radar is the empowerment of more individuals, particularly the rural areas.
“Because the more prepared they are, the less likely they’re going to need me or the first responders,” she said. “Ask what you learned from the snow and what have you done to fix the problem. How have you mitigated that problem so it doesn’t happen again?”
Meyers, too, believes the power to respond effectively rests largely with citizen readiness.
“I think it boils down to the individual,” he said. “We can be as prepared as we can possibly be. A neighbor could be as prepared as they could possibly be. But none of that’s going to work if the individuals aren’t ready.”
Evidence of a lack of readiness became apparent during this year’s snowstorm and flooding as sev-eral requests for aid to the city and county could not be met due to resource constraints. In a state of emergency, many naturally assume a hierarchy of emergency management is capable of addressing everything within its jurisdiction.
“You should flip that hierarchy,” Ferguson said. “It needs to be individual and then city and then county and state and fed.”
As more individuals are prepared, systems on other levels are free to address more severe problems which have overloaded more local resources.
“And that’s true about each level of government,” said Ferguson. “So that means the more the city can handle its own stuff, that gives the county the flexibility of dealing with the areas outside of the cities where people aren’t being addressed.”
Ferguson added that this was part of the reason the county was pleased with the city government of Cottage Grove.
“They were perfectly happy with us. We didn’t need anything from [them],” she said. “The more each jurisdiction can take care of their own, it frees up the capacity of that agency or whatever group above them is.”
And, while independence can be a virtue unto itself, Ferguson stressed the need for community involvement as well.
“Self-sufficiency and interdependence,” she said. “Interdependence rather than necessarily independence — insomuch as that I think it’s very important that you worry about you and your family’s preparedness, but then you need to ask, outside of that bubble, ‘How are your neighbors doing?’ And if we all reach out one hand in each direction, we create a loop.”
And for a city the size of Cottage Grove with strong rural ties, such lessons are not hard to learn.
“Cottage Grove is a cool place,” said Meyers. “We’re not urban in the sense that we don’t know what to do and can’t take care of ourselves.”
For those wanting to learn more, the third annual Emergency Preparedness Fair will be held in Coiner Park this Saturday, Aug. 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is free and will include more than two dozen booths staffed by emergency preparedness organizations and first responders. Those who visit every booth will have a chance to win a family-size, 72-hour emergency preparedness kit in a raffle and the first 100 visitors will receive an emergency preparedness backpack.