Art: Rebekka Dunlap

Neighborhood Emergency

A 9.0 earthquake has thrown Portland into chaos. Hours after the shock, residents are struggling to survive. Part 2 of 5.

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Mar 3 2016, 11:00am

Art: Rebekka Dunlap

This is part two of After the Big One. To experience the first five minutes of the catastrophic quake scientists believe will hit the Pacific Northwest any time now, start here.


Smoke is rising from many parts of the city, but it is strangely quiet. Collapsing bridges, fallen power lines, and buried pipes, rising like zombies in the liquefied soil, have destroyed many of its roads.

Residents of the Portland metro area are heading home on foot. Those already there are surveying their neighborhoods. My home, a vintage craftsman bungalow, was not properly anchored to its foundation, and it slipped towards the street far enough to tip forward, leaning into the front yard, front windows shattered. Still, other than being completely uninhabitable, it looks fine. My books and dishes are tossed around the inside, but I can go inside, and retrieve my earthquake kit. I look up and down the street. Many other homes are still intact. But without a city to connect it to, what good is a house? Portlanders look around them for answers, and see no one there to help but themselves.

+6 Hours

Portland, until six hours ago, had been a growing city, its ballooning population outpacing the capacity of its emergency services, even as the city trains new responders to keep up. Now, post-quake, there are more emergencies than can be reported and counted, let alone responded to. There is no way around it: for the next four days at least, we will have to be able to take care of ourselves whether we like it or not.1

But this new reality is not news to everyone. Some of my neighbors have been aware of this impending crisis for years. Even though the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake was just a slim possibility, they have been training as if it were a fact. And now, they spring into action. They are called the Neighborhood Emergency Teams, or NETs.2

From the look of the members in my neighborhood, the average age of a NET volunteer looks to be about 50, though there is a fair distribution of people both in their 20s and closer to 70.3 They are people who have lived in Portland for some time, scattered throughout the various neighborhoods, who care enough about their city and its future potential catastrophe to donate over 30 hours of their time to be trained in first aid, basic search and rescue, and in the fundamentals of a good earthquake and emergency kit.4

Some neighborhoods are on fire, as fallen powerlines and exploding transformers spread flame to trees and buildings. Other neighborhoods are hit hard by liquefaction, with houses tipped and twisted at odd, unnatural angles. In the older areas of town, unreinforced masonry claimed lives and trapped the living in tombs of rubble. And yet other areas, farther from the river, are mostly fine: only the lights don't work, and nothing comes out when you turn the faucet.

Smoke drifts in the air as the NETs start working their local problems. For those in the worse-hit areas, two things become immediately apparent to me.5 First: these volunteers simply cannot replace the emergency professionals the city now desperately needs.

A disaster is incredibly chaotic. As the NETs come upon situations where people are in pain, in terror and panic, and still in serious danger, the NETs struggle to maintain focus and self-organize. Many freeze up.

I watch a rescue play out, on a street not too far from my house. A shopper is trapped underneath a heavy portion of a wall inside a convenience store. The goal is simple: using a process called cribbing, the volunteers try to lever the wall up enough to pull the person to safety. This is a procedure they have practiced before, taught to them by firefighters during a weekend exercise many months ago. But the well-understood concepts from their textbooks and lessons dissolved as many different attempts collided into each other. Arguing, they make awkward attempts at the rescue, each holler of pain from the injured person below shattering their resolve, and increasing their confusion.

Two NETs in another neighborhood not too far away are seriously injured when they fail to see a downed power line while moving broken branches. Later, I hear one volunteer tell another how, while searching a dark grocery store for injured people, he spent twenty minutes stabilizing a person with a broken arm, before realizing there was an unconscious teenager just five feet away.

We're waiting for a signal, a direction, an inspiration or an idea that never comes, an order from a person that doesn't exist.

Stories like this are unfolding by the hundreds, as volunteers shot through with adrenaline, fear, and good-natured human concern make the same mistakes we all do, when they're suddenly thrust into a nightmare like this. Stashes of nitrile gloves, emergency whistles, and ziploc bags of sterile bandages are no match for the beaten infrastructure of a metropolitan area with a population of over two million.

But they're a lot more effective than they would have been without training. Many Portlanders, like me, stand around without any idea of what to do, while the NETs are heading out right towards the problems. We're waiting for a signal, a direction, an inspiration or an idea that never comes, an order from a person that doesn't exist. For the first time, in the lives of most, we are on our own, without an authority to turn to or a procedure to follow.

The average resident of any city knows so little about what to do in a disaster. How many people even know what the gas line coming into their house looks like? How many people have stopped to think about how to make a toilet, if the sewer system stops functioning? How many people have the requisite supplies on hand to transport drinking water from a distribution center to their homes? I hadn't even begun to consider these things, until I started researching the CSZ quake.

Giving every Portland resident the training of a firefighter is impossible, but there is a lot of smaller steps that can be taken, to teach residents small lessons in the time that we have. Now that the quake has arrived, the NETs are no closer to being a real Urban Search and Rescue team than they were when they began training. But in a disaster like this one, they are effective simply because they're more aware of the massive challenges they face. We look out at the city, and see a single scene of devastation, mingling like the smoke in the sky, and the noise in our ears. They see the same scene, but within it, particular challenges they are not capable of fighting, and then, those they can.

These challenges are all around us now, scattered across the city with no predictable pattern. Fires burn with no one to fight them, voices scream from inside collapsed buildings until they can scream no longer. In many places, the roads are too shattered by liquefaction and choked with debris and vehicles for emergency vehicles to pass.6 There is no electricity for power tools, no water pressure at many hydrants.7 Six hours after the CSZ quake in Portland, my less-prepared neighbors are still trying to call 911, even as the last connected cell phone towers burn through their emergency backup batteries and coverage goes from jammed to non-existent.8

We are rightfully panicked, because six hours after the quake, there is no official announcement, no emergency notification, no phone number to call, no uniformed official to ask.9 But in this panic, and through it, is where neighbors can help each other.

Neighbors will help their neighbors by distinguishing between the sort of first aid that can be administered using household supplies, and the sort of first aid that needs professional help or evacuation. The NETs help me shut off the gas and water line to my damaged house, to prevent further accidents. We will all will help each other look for our parents, our partners, our children, and our pets. The NETs will organize people who are standing in shock, to give them the impetus to move vehicles, clear streets, and gather emergency supplies. Together, we will fight small fires, search through the small homes, and check on the elderly up and down the block.

We will have to, because there will not be anyone else.

There are a few people who are severely injured in the neighborhood--some broken bones, and a number of bad wounds. The bandages in our first aid kits are not enough. These people need real medical help that we can't provide.

What the NETs know from their training, is that rather than trying to call 911 on the jammed phone lines, we should send a runner to the closest Basic Earthquake Emergency Communication Node (BEECN).10 Set up by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), the BEECNs are a network of sites scattered throughout the residential neighborhoods of the city, based in parks, schools, or other community centers.

I am that runner. I take off to the nearby park, as directed, with a list of how many people we have hurt, and where they are. At the BEECN nearest me in North Portland, trained volunteers have already arrived, and set up amateur radios to relay information to the local fire station.

There is nowhere near enough firefighters and police to handle all the small emergencies instantly created across the city.

They pass on my report, along with other issues coming in from the neighborhood. A hair salon is on fire on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. There is a woman with a broken leg at Ainsworth and NE 12th Ave. A van has collided with a car at NE 6th and Lombard, and a man is trapped in the wreck.

There is nowhere near enough firefighters and police to handle all the small emergencies instantly created across the city, but using the BEECNs as a relay, local fire crews get a sense of where the most important emergencies are happening in the immediate area.11

Many people will be waiting for quite awhile, especially if their injuries are on this side of life-threatening. Now I wait with those who can walk at the BEECN point. NET volunteers give me a task: to organize donated first aid supplies coming in, and help those who can begin treating their own minor injuries. Once the word spreads, it is more than I can handle. Towels, boxes of unorganized bandages, tape, tarps, and hand sanitizer are carried in by neighbors in the area. Taking a page from the NET playbook, I recruit more volunteers to help me.

Overall, the best source of immediate help is in Portlanders' own earthquake kits, such as they have, which are hopefully not trapped under wreckage. Perhaps we never had a chance to finish assembling our kits, or never even started. But we might have some bottled water, and a backpack with flashlights, a radio, and some cash—which will be helpful, since all ATMs and card machines will now fail to function. The NETs all have decent kits of course, and as they roam the neighborhoods they give advice on what items we should collect together.

In the beginning stages of the CSZ quake's aftermath, accounting of resources will be crucial. What is damaged, and how badly? What resources are still available, what is missing, and what do we need to fix first? For the NETs and their neighbors, this answer will likely researched with a thick pair of work gloves. Portland neighborhoods won't just have to pull ourselves up by bootstraps, but climb our way out of their city's once-accommodating infrastructure, now fallen around us like the bars of a cage.

While the volunteers of the NETs and BEECNs try their best to organize things on the local level, the city is doing a similar task at the highest levels. In Southeast Portland, PBEM employees are rallying at their workplace: the Emergency Coordination Center. The Center is a brand new complex completed in 2014, built specifically for the earthquake, and any other curveball that nature or culture can throw Portland's way. It is stocked with equipment, from a cistern of rainwater used to flush the toilets, to a kitchen capable of serving hundreds, to all the desk space and computers necessary to coordinate the city's response to an unpredictable disaster like a CSZ quake.12

The instant the earthquake hit, the building becomes the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the city, and this will be the central point of coordination for all city-level emergency response activities post-quake.13

The EOC is in a good location: the Southeast quadrant, with more stable soil farther from the rivers, has survived with much less damage to buildings than other areas.14 But the earthquake's considerable shaking takes its toll. Bridges in the area are impassable, especially those overpasses over the I-205 freeway that runs in a north-south trench through the eastern part of the city, and low-lying roadways are flooded by broken sewer and water mains. Anyone who needs to cross 95th Ave will have to climb across a freeway trench, just as people have at the other freeways. Employees not already at the EOC use radios to report their status, and then get there however they can. Many walk or bicycle.15

The mayor was out of town on a trip, and so far cannot be reached by phone. This means that the President of the City Council is in charge, according to the line of succession.16 The president is currently in touch with the EOC by cell phone, until they reach the EOC. High-ranking government officials are able to access Wireless Priority Service.17 This service, put in place by the phone company, allows authorized government users to cut in line around the calls jamming the cell phone networks. While ordinary citizens can't find a circuit to get through to 911, the President of the Council enters a special code and supersedes the jam, getting ahold of the PBEM director. And it is a good thing too: the government of Portland has just officially declared the city in a State of Emergency by cell phone.18

The EOC is humming with activity, as representatives from various bureaus and organizations arrive at the center. The emergency power is connected, the computers are switched on, people are running to their places, beginning their checklists.

While the NET volunteers self-organize in a more chaotic manner, the EOC operates according a complex, but highly regimented logic. On normal days, the various departments of the city function according to whatever office structure those in charge might have in place. But when thrust into an emergency like a CSZ quake, all Portland agencies jump with both feet into a FEMA-created standard called the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

NIMS is complex, and to an outsider, appears to be just another bureaucracy with confusing and impenetrable titles and endless organizational charts. However, NIMS is designed to do one particular thing and to do it well: to provide a single method for a group of independent agencies and bureaus to work together in a crisis.19 Originally developed for managing the fighting of wildfires, NIMS is perfect for situations where different agencies that ordinarily communicate only through specific channels must now coordinate their efforts across all levels.

From search and rescue missions through collapsed buildings, to surveys of damaged bridges and roadways, from the setup of emergency hospitals, to statements to the media and contact with their counterparts at the State and Federal level, Portland's many agencies can use the NIMS system to work together, rather than separately. NIMS allows inter-agency cooperation without all the arguing about who is in charge or whose jurisdiction it is, despite the play these dramatics might get in TV shows or movies.

As soon as the State of Emergency is declared, a prearranged committee known as "Unified Command" is set up between Portland Fire and Rescue, the Police Bureau, the Department of Transportation, and the Water Bureau.20 On any other day, these different bureaus would function independently, and each would prioritize their own tasks. Now, these agencies will form like Voltron to define a common mission: save lives, collect information about the status of the city and the worst hit areas, and prepare for reconstruction.21

This is easier said than done. What remains of the phone system is now shutting down, as emergency generators run out of fuel. Down a short hallway from the EOC is the Bureau of Emergency Communications: the 911 dispatch and call-taking center. They have almost entirely stopped dispatching 911 calls, instead focusing on tracking the operating capacity of all the police, fire, and ambulance units current on duty, and verifying that police precincts, firehouses, and hospitals are still standing and operational.22

The city's radio systems, like the EOC, have emergency generators that came online instantly as the power went down.23 But the shaking has knocked microwave relay antennas out of alignment. Transmissions are static-filled, and difficult to copy. The EOC has satellite communications, to keep in touch with the State EOC in Salem, and with FEMA Regional Headquarters in Bothell, Washington, as well as the FEMA National Response Coordination Center in Washington DC. But local command and control is still recovering, trying to adapt from the day-to-day chaos of life-threatening emergencies, to a shaken city under a general state of emergency.

Out on the streets of Portland, emergency teams are mostly self-dispatching, as they are flagged down by citizens or receive reports from BEECNs. The worst fires are immediately apparent to fire crews as the smoke rises into the sky. Word spreads through the neighborhood about the worst building collapses, and heavy rescue teams are directed there by local residents.

On Grand Avenue, just east of the Willamette, a 3-story masonry apartment building has fallen in on itself, trapping an unknown number of people inside. A line of stalled traffic waiting to get on I-5 northbound near Delta Park became trapped under concrete, falling from the freeway overpass. A landslide in the Southwest Hills has destroyed a number of houses, but no one is quite sure how many. A propane storage facility is on fire in East Portland. There is a Hazmat spill at the Airport. Emergency personnel make hundreds of split second decisions, deciding which emergencies are the ones they will respond to, and which will have to wait.

A volunteer from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service arrives at the EOC. This service is similar to the BEECN program, but organized by ham radio users directly. Volunteers operate their radios as a backup to regular city radios in the event of an emergency.24 Amateur radio systems can't handle the same amount of traffic and data that official emergency radio systems can, but they are simpler, cheaper, and don't require sophisticated relay systems. On the day of the CSZ quake, the minute the volunteer plugs in, the first report received to the EOC, relayed from a BEECN site, is that the entire neighborhood of St. Johns is on fire.25

Next: Part Three: Fuel to the Fire

Terraform editor Brian Merchant spoke to author Adam Rothstein about this series for Radio Motherboard, which is available on iTunes and all podcast apps.


1. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 2-4.

2. Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, "NETs," retrieved February 29, 2016 https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/31667

3. Observed via my own on-site training visits.

4. The Portland NET training is based on a federal program called the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Many cities have their own version of the CERT program, especially in earthquake prone areas. The CERT program started in Los Angeles in 1985, based on a similar program in Japan. In 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standardized the program, and created free training materials to communities. In 1994, Portland Fire and Rescue adopted the program, and when PBEM became its own bureau in 2000 (then called the Office of Emergency Management), it took on the training program. Dan Douthit (Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Public Information Officer), in discussion with author, September 2015.

5. These descriptions are based on my own personal observations of actual NET trainings and live exercises. I certainly don't intend to disparate these volunteers' efforts. Far from it: I plan on undergoing the training myself this year, and I'm certain I will not be any better prepared than those I watched. And yet, I will do the training anyway, because that is precisely the point of it, in my view.

6. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 2-3.

7. Ibid, Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 204.

8. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 15.

9. While there are plenty of Emergency Public Alert systems in place, it is relatively unknown what broadcast methods will be functional, and what reception methods will be functional. Anything relying on electricity has to be assumed to potentially fail. Given this, while some forms of limited broadcast media may indeed be functional, there is little that can be relied upon with assurity. See Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-6.

10. Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, "BEECN," retrieved February 29, 2016 https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/59630

11. Dan Douthit (Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Public Information Officer), in discussion with author, September and November 2015.

12. Ibid.

13. Portland Earthquake Appendix, 33.

14. DOGAMI Interpretive Map Series, IMS-16, Sheet 4 & 5, City of Portland Hazards Map https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/article/394641

15. Ibid, City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 16.

16. City of Portland, Basic Emergency Operations Plan (2013), 62.

17. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 16.

18. City of Portland, Basic Emergency Operations Plan, 39.

19. Federal Emergency Management Agency, "National Incident Management System," retrieved February 29, 2016, https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-...

20. Dan Douthit interview, September 2015; City of Portland, Basic Emergency Operations Plan, 38; City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 23.

21. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-6; City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 23

22. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 33-34.

23. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 16; Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 127.

24. Amateur Radio Relay League, Amateur Radio Emergency Service (2015), 1; Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 127; City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 34-35.

25. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-12,13.