June 16, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Lane County to review ice storm response Feb. 5; residents ask for transparency

9 min read
Norma Helmer: "Clearly, the shelter system wasn't expected to be needed by storm refugees or to provide sustained shelter for other unhoused residents. The humanitarian aspects of response need to be addressed and made central to county and to the city's emergency planning."

Residents ask for transparency as Lane County sets its first meeting to discuss its response to the ice storm. With public comment for Lane County commissioners Jan. 30:

Norma D. Helmer: My name is Norma D. Helmer. Much of my career at the University of Oregon was spent supporting emergency preparedness and response. I was a Community Emergency Response Team member and trainer for a number of years.

[00:00:23] My comment is about the recent ice emergency and the need for transparency and coordination among local governments. The shelter system for storm refugees and unhoused county residents fell apart, as you know. Others have asked for a hotwash to identify the issues and solutions.

[00:00:40] We attended a Springfield City Council meeting last night and others brought up these issues again, others independent from the Egan Warming Center people.

[00:00:51] Please provide a report on your internal findings and reach out to residents who may not have been previously identified as stakeholders in a broader effort to identify issues and seek solutions to the emergency response issues we found.

[00:01:05] This was an electrical emergency and a transportation emergency, as the media made clear at the time. We knew the storm was coming, but we didn’t know how much ice was coming. Clearly, the shelter system wasn’t expected to be needed by storm refugees or to provide sustained shelter for other unhoused residents.

[00:01:28] The humanitarian aspects of response need to be addressed and made central to county and to the city’s emergency planning. Obviously at the core of the warming center shelter issue is the fact that so many people in the county are unhoused. I know you know that. I know you’ve been working very hard on addressing that issue with the root cause, but we still have so many people who have nowhere to go when the rivers rise.

[00:01:56] You know all of this about the general issues related to the emergency response, and I appreciate that you are all working on it. I ask that your efforts be inclusive and visible. You are my local government and I rely on you to continue your excellent work in this area.

[00:02:14] John F. Helmer: I’m John F. Helmer and I joined you last week and you may recall with a thanks but also a call for an assessment of what happened at the Egan Centers, and more broadly, ways we can do things differently.

[00:02:29] So I’m coming again with a word of thanks. I always feel like it’s worth starting there. And then a call for transparency in the process as we go forward. So in terms of, thanks again, I, you know, just listening to this morning’s agenda already, you think of all the people who are out there still fixing what happened in this community.

[00:02:48] I think they, I have to start there, but also the Egan volunteers who continue to press just to make things better. We had a group of 10 sign on to a single statement for the city of Springfield last night, so people are really engaged and care about this.

[00:03:04] I really want to thank all of you for your supportive comments last week and particularly to Commissioner (David) Loveall for his engagement in the future of the Egan Center in Springfield, well before the ice storm and his work there.

[00:03:18] In terms of what we need now, my suggestion is that what’s really needed now is a clear public statement about how this assessment process will proceed, including a commitment to sharing information with the public and the inclusion of of all key players.

[00:03:35] So in my travels, I’ve heard several things. I’ve heard that on Feb. 5 the county is going to engage in an internal hotwash. I’ve heard that a more focused assessment of what happened at the Egan (Warming) centers might happen quickly. I’ve heard that maybe a month or so out we might expect a much more broad-based assessment that includes the cities and key partners.

[00:03:57] So I’ve heard those things, but I don’t know how much of that is true. That’s just stuff I’ve heard from both elected officials and county and city employees. So, I really appreciate it, in time, as you know, that we have clarity about how this is going to proceed. So I strongly encourage that we do this so the public doesn’t become frustrated and think nothing’s being done.

[00:04:19] They don’t know how they’re going to weigh in. So if we can be very clear, and know that lots of people care about this topic and want a clear sense of how to be involved going forward. So with that, if there’s anything even today that can be said about how this is going to work and what the timeline will be and how we can be involved, I would appreciate hearing about that.

[00:04:41] John Q: Lane County commissioners also heard the first cost estimates for the emergency response and for damages to public property.

[00:04:51] Steve Adams (Policy director, Lane County): Yesterday we submitted an initial damage assessment, specifically for estimated response expenses and damage to all public sector infrastructure in Lane County. That estimate was $45 million—$45.5 million to be exact—of which $3.8 million is the total estimated hit to county government operations, both in terms of our response as well as infrastructure or assets owned by the county.

[00:05:19] This is the initial damage assessment that demonstrates to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) that there is sufficient cause for them to send a team in. They will embed with state government and engage us in local government to then go to the next step, which is to staff the presidential declaration. And that will happen over the next couple of weeks, we anticipate.

[00:05:43] Ryan Ceniga (Lane County commissioner): You said $45.5 total. Was that in Lane County as a whole, including utilities?

[00:05:50] Steve Adams (Policy director, Lane County): $45.5 million as a whole, including utilities, correct. And the county impact specific to county government was $3.8 million of the $45.5. Correct. Utilities account for the lion’s share of what we’re reporting.

[00:06:08] Steve Mokrohisky (Administrator, Lane County): You know, cities are like an inch wide and a mile deep in the lives of residents and counties are like a mile wide and an inch deep in the lives of residents. When you think about the geographic area and the communities that we serve, it’s really wide. And the extent to which we can solve all of those challenges within all of those communities is fairly limited.

[00:06:29] I like using that analogy ’cause it does give an example of like, you know, cities and smaller municipal organizations get really deep in terms of the level of service that they provide in the lives of those residents. But the sort of scope of the people that they’re impacting is more narrow.

[00:06:45] This is all to say that in emergencies, of course, and really complex problems, not, you know, one organization is not going to be able to respond to all of those needs.

[00:06:54] And I will just share in the appreciation for the public comments this week and last week again in that they’re calling for really a community conversation around, ‘How do we do better?’ I want to also note that we’ve in Lane County explored and done some work over the last few years around this concept of ‘failing forward.’

[00:07:13] That in government as opposed to the private sector—private sector tends to do a pretty good job innovating and taking risks. And being open to that in government because of the exposure and the public dollars and the transparency with which we have to operate, we sometimes can be more risk-averse and less wanting to take challenges and risks.

[00:07:32] And what we’ve said in Lane County is, ‘No, we need to, in order to meet the needs of our residents, we have to be leaning into problems and we need to be trying things and taking some calculated risks and also recognizing that the process of innovating, of actually solving challenges is a process of failure and learning from failure, that if you’re trying hard, you’re going to make mistakes.

[00:07:52] If you’re doing new things and doing things differently, where you’re going to make mistakes. The important thing is to reflect on what didn’t go well, and I think that’s what this call to action is right now, is to say there were a lot of things that went really well in this response effort as a community and as a county government and within the cities and the utilities and everything, and inevitably there were some things that are being called out here that we need to reflect on that we know could have gone better.

[00:08:18] So that I, with that idea of failing forward, that’s what these debriefs, after-action, hotwash, whatever you want to call it, is about once we get a little bit of distance from the event to then bring everyone together and go, ‘Okay, let’s talk about what worked and what didn’t work and reflect on them, in service towards doing better next time.’

[00:08:39] So there’s some broad comments, but we do have Mr. Helmer brought up the question about what’s happening in terms of after-actions. We do have a meeting scheduled within Lane County for Feb. 5, next Monday.

[00:08:51] It’s a two-hour meeting. There’s roughly 30 people, of Lane County staff. And I will say that one of the things the board knows, our former emergency manager, Patence Winningham, left a few months ago to go to the state to become the deputy director of the office, now, Department of Emergency Management.

[00:09:09] She was down here helping during that event. We had the director of the new Department of office Emergency Management that was with us last week, toured the EOC, toured Springfield. So we’ve gotten a lot of support from our state partners. I want to call that out and offer that appreciation.

[00:09:24] Locally we’ve had that gap. Jeff Kincaid has done a phenomenal job serving as our interim emergency manager, and through this event, he did not ask to be handed this event. But this is what happens. He did a phenomenal job of doing all that and really the county’s role is to support in these sort of more widespread efforts—to support the truly local organizations, the cities, the utilities, the nonprofit organizations.

[00:09:49] So we, the county’s not going to be, in Cascadia or any of these larger events, to be able to do everything in response, but we are the ones that are taking those requests and then trying to provide response and get resources out to meet the various needs. And so that’s what Jeff was doing in this event.

[00:10:06] So the reason that we’ve scheduled the meeting on Feb. 5 is because we have our new emergency manager who is starting on Feb. 5. That will be her first day. Tiffany Brown is coming to us. She’s the emergency manager in Clatsop County, so has great experience there, worked with our former emergency manager, Patence Winningham, and we’re really excited to welcome Tiffany on Monday.

[00:10:27] So we have this meeting scheduled Monday afternoon as our internal hotwash. You know, we really said, ‘Boy, on her first day, are we going to do that?’ Well, yeah. That’s what we need to do is we need to start having that conversation, that two-hour meeting, we will identify and start the planning work necessary for this broader hotwash that we call it.

[00:10:46] Because really what we need to do is bring together the utilities and the cities and the state agencies, and the schools and the hospitals, and the nonprofit organizations and Red Cross and federal, you know, all everybody that was involved in those efforts. So we will have that, it probably is a few weeks out and we do want a little bit of distance from the event itself to truly be able to capture all of the learnings and the reflections.

[00:11:11] But I just want to say that, that Monday is the first opportunity and we’re excited to welcome Tiffany. And I think it’ll be great to have someone new to the organization, the community, that can come in sort of with fresh eyes and hear these things and then help us really move forward. So more to come on that.

[00:11:26] I’m happy to report back on how that meeting goes and then on what the next plans are for future debriefs in the community. But just appreciate all of the continued effort to push forward and the effort to ‘fail forward’ in learning from all this work.

[00:11:43] John Q: On Monday, her first day as Lane County’s new emergency manager, Tiffany Brown will attend a two-hour internal meeting to review the response to the ice storm. And the community asks to participate in a broader review, which will likely be scheduled in a few weeks.

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