East Portland

City leader pledges we'll be ready for disaster; audit raises questions

City leader pledges we'll be ready for disaster; audit raises questions »Play Video
The city's partially completed Emergency Coordination Center.

PORTLAND – When the time comes that Portland faces a disaster, City Commissioner Steve Novick makes this promise: "We will be ready, we will really be ready."

Novick is in charge of Portland's Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) and Emergency Communications. He points to a state-of-the art Emergency Coordination Center, currently under construction in Southeast Portland, as the latest symbol of the city's disaster readiness.

"We will complete this building, which itself is critical," he said. "I mean, it's very important that we have an Emergency Coordination Center that's going to survive an earthquake and usable for the city."

But the On Your Side Investigators have discovered the $396,000 sculpture outside the coordination center may be the only thing that's actually ready when the building opens. This city audit, published in June and addressed to Portland's new city council members, exposes just how vulnerable Portland really is.
 
Portland's Director of Audit Services, Drummond Kahn, said "Our concern there is without clearer planning, the city is less prepared to respond to those than if it has clear planning."

In fact, Kahn's report spells out his concerns loud and clear: "City services may not be adequately prepared to withstand a disaster."

Kahn points specifically to the absence of what's called a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). It's a plan for the city to follow to quickly restore essential services after a disruption, including anything from a power outage to a natural disaster. Portland doesn't have a COOP, even though three fault lines running underneath our region make the area particularly prone to earthquakes.

By comparison, Seattle's had a COOP for four years. Baltimore, which is a city similar in size to Portland, has had a COOP for five years. Even Cannon Beach, which is tiny compared to Portland, has a COOP for five years.

Consider it this way: a massive earthquake hits the city. The lights go out, the water no longer runs, the computer systems go down and roads are in disarray. The city must be able to restore these essential services right away, but which ones should be fixed first? Plus, what equipment is needed to keep Portland running?
 
Kahn said, "Until those questions are answered, the city won't know the order to spend its limited money to bring things back online and that's a concern."

Without a good Continuity of Operations Plan, the report states, "city bureaus may not be able to provide services to residents during or after a big disaster. The lack of some city services will be mildly inconvenient to the public, but other services provided by the city are life-saving (from the public safety bureaus), life-giving (clean water), and life-sustaining (sewage removal)."

"They told us that every system is critical, and that's good I suppose, but it also means that we're lacking that hierarchy to help distinguish between the most critical to get back online after a disaster versus those that we can live without for three days or a week," Kahn said.

The burden will be even bigger if computers go down because the city may not be able to access money to pay for crucial repairs quickly.
 
"Even if a couple of the city's it functions go down," Kahn continued, "You have the issue of: can the city write checks in the event of emergency repairs? Can city servers be up to allow email access, radio access by emergency responders, you name it."

The audit goes on to say, depending on how long it takes to rebuild or replace the information technology systems, "It could be days, if not weeks, before the city's finance, payroll, remote access and communication systems are restored." 
 
Kahn said, "If a disaster destroys a building or server that hosts the city's data center, they won't have the ability to recover quickly. That's a concern because the city doesn't have a system ready to continue operations if a disaster severs those connections."

You'll recall, Novick promised Portland will be ready and has the new state-of-the-art Emergency Coordination Center to prove it. However, after KATU challenged him about the auditor's findings, he admitted the building is only part of the puzzle.

"This building means that we will have a facility that's ready to help manage a disaster, however the city as a whole -- and in fact the state as a whole -- has a lot of work to do in terms of being truly ready for major disasters, especially the one that is really looming out there which is a major earthquake," Novick said.

Portland's Bureau of Emergency Management plans to move its offices in a few weeks but the Emergency Coordination Center won't be fully operational until the end of the year, the same time the city says its COOP will finally be done.

We asked Novick why the center has artwork completed but not some of the emergency plans.

“It doesn't take much to do once piece of art. It takes a lot to prepare an entire and a region for an earthquake," he said.

KATU also found a 2010 City audit that raised the point about Portland’s lack of a COOP.
 
The spokesman for PBEM, Dan Douthit, said his office is shepherding the completion of Portland's city-wide COOP.

"We've been focusing on it along with all of the other recommendations made by the Auditor in other areas,” Douthit said. “The COOP planning process takes years to do right, and then once it's in place, the city plan and bureau plans will require constant updating as staff changes occur. At this point the substance of the citywide plan is essentially done, but it will take until November or December to bring a document to the city's Disaster Policy Council.

He also said the first meeting of a citywide COOP Committee, led by public safety bureaus like PBEM, police and fire, will be held September 26th to go over the plans.

Although a citywide COOP plan hasn't been formally adopted by council, Douthit continued, the information currently available from the bureaus would enable the Disaster Policy Council to prioritize the allocation of resources in a major disaster.