Planning Ahead: County, city leaders planning now for future natural disasters

VANCOUVER — There’s no way to stop Mother Nature, but county and city leaders in southwest Washington believe there may be a way to blunt her more destructive side.
After nearly two years’ worth of meetings, research and public outreach, local jurisdictions throughout Clark County are set to approve individualized, as well as regionwide, hazard mitigation plans this month.

The regionwide mitigation plan, developed by the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) in conjunction with the county, nine municipalities and eight special purpose districts including the Port of Vancouver, C-TRAN, Clark County Fire District 3 and various school districts, weighs in at more than 700 pages in length and covers everything from: “What are the biggest natural disaster threats facing Clark County and its individual cities?” to “How do city leaders reduce their area’s vulnerability in the event of an earthquake, flood, landslide or other natural disaster?”

Because each city inside Clark County has its own special considerations and needs during a natural disaster, the  full 700-plus-page document includes individual hazard mitigation plans for each jurisdiction.

Recent storms have drenched most areas of Clark County, including the overflowing ‘Wetland Bottoms’ area in La Center pictured here. A new, countywide hazard mitigation plan will help local cities, fire districts and schools plan ahead for natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, severe weather and other natural hazards. Photo by Mike Schultz
Recent storms have drenched most areas of Clark County, including the overflowing ‘Wetland Bottoms’ area in La Center pictured here. A new, countywide hazard mitigation plan will help local cities, fire districts and schools plan ahead for natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, severe weather and other natural hazards. Photo by Mike Schultz

In Vancouver, for instance, severe weather and earthquakes have the highest priority among the eight “hazard categories” CRESA identified as being the most likely to inflict damage in Clark County. The other categories  — dam failure, drought, flood, landslide, volcano and wildfire — still have the possibility of affecting Vancouver, but are at a lower priority than severe weather and earthquakes.

“Not to say that (the six low-priority hazards) don’t exist,” Vancouver Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken told Vancouver City Council members on Mon., March 20, at the council’s regular meeting. “It’s just not really where we should be spending a lot of time and resources.”

Instead, Eiken said, city leaders should concentrate on the 34 action items identified for Vancouver in the city’s individualized hazard mitigation plan.

Much like the overarching hazards, the action items developed for each jurisdiction and special purpose district have been assigned low-, medium- and high-priority designations.

Some of the highest priority action items in Vancouver include things like:

Adopting a regional debris management plan: This action item provides a guide for clearing debris from area roads after a natural disaster strikes, so that mobility — particularly for first-responders trying to save human lives — is not impaired.

“There may be a lot of debris blocking the streets, preventing emergency vehicles from getting to where they need to go,” Eiken said. “This plan will outline how we deal with that debris, where we put it … This is a countywide effort and (city) staff is working closely with county staff on this.”

Getting messages out to the public: This is another countywide effort, Eiken said. County and city leaders want to have a plan in place to notify the public during and after a natural disaster. Relying on technology, such as social media, may be a good option if the infrastructure that supports such things is still working, but in the event of a massive earthquake, which would likely interfere with wifi and cellular service for at least a few days, other options — like shortwave radio networks — may be more appropriate.

Other action items are more specific. For instance, Vancouver’s “Action Item 16” deals with one piece of property — the Lakeside Mobile Estates, located northeast of Vancouver Lake, which was adversely affected during the 1995 Vancouver flood. Eiken said the city hopes to work with the mobile park owner to help get structures above the 100-year floodline to prevent similar flooding in the future.

Prevention is the key piece of the hazard mitigation plan, Eiken added.

“We want to understand the risks and vulnerabilities for residents, local businesses and local governments,” he told Vancouver councilmembers on March 20. The plan, he said, is intended to “reduce the negative impacts of natural hazards.”

The Vancouver City Council approved that city’s individual plan as well as the regionwide hazard mitigation plan on March 20, but other cities and special districts are still discussing the issue.

At their Wed., March 22 meeting, the La Center City Council also debated the merits of the plan, which outlines some of La Center’s unique risks in the event of a natural disaster: a vulnerable creek crossing over Brezee Creek, which flows between emergency service providers, the city’s public works operations and La Center schools; and the fact that the city is isolated with “only one bridge leading in and out of the community.”

Like Vancouver, the hazards identified as posing the greatest risk for La Center are severe weather and earthquakes. Floods and landslides pose a “medium risk” and all of the other listed hazards — dam failure, drought, volcanic eruptions and wildfires — are considered “low risk” for La Center.

“We have been working the last year and a half on pre-emptive plan to mitigate natural hazards … actions that reduce or eliminate long-term risks from earthquakes, floods, fires, etc.,” La Center Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis told La Center City Council members on March 22 at their council meeting. “The La Center part of the plan is about 13 pages out of the 700-plus (regionwide plan). It’s pretty small, but this is a start.”

City councilmembers in La Center and Vancouver agreed that having a plan in place is a move in the right direction.

“If we do have mitigation issues — losing bridges, roadways, etc. — we will have an action plan in case we do get a disaster and we’ll be able to implement the action plans right away, as opposed to not being prepared,” said La Center City Councilmember Joe Valenzuela.

Eiken also agreed that the plan is a move in the right direction, but cautioned that the 700-plus-page hazard mitigation plan is not a response plan to a natural disaster.

“This is a planning document for the community to establish long-term and short-term policies and minimize (the risks posed by a disaster),” Eiken said. “This is not a response plan. That will come later.”

To read more about the hazard mitigation plan or find out which areas of Clark County will be most affected in the event of an earthquake (including the expected “Cascadia 9.0” quake), flood or other natural disaster, visit CRESA’s website at cresa911.org, click the “Hazard Mitigation” link under the “Emergency Management” tab and then click the “Hazard Maps” link to find out how your part of Clark County might weather a natural disaster event.

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About The Author

Kelly Moyer has been reporting for community newspapers since the mid-1990s, including the Newport News-Times on the Oregon Coast; the Lewistown Sentinel, a daily newspaper in central Pennsylvania; the Gresham Outlook, Wilsonville Spokesman, Sherwood Gazette and South County Spotlight newspapers in the Portland metro area; and The Reflector newspaper in Battle Ground, Wash. She also is the former managing editor of Midwifery Today, an international magazine for birth professionals. Kelly, a University of Oregon alumnus and Pennsylvania native, lives with her family in Northeast Portland.

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