Local leaders discuss disaster response options, coordination

By Ann McCreary

After three days of heavy rain from spring storms, the Methow Valley is experiencing widespread and severe flooding. Mudslides are reported throughout the valley, blocking more than a dozen roads near steep drainages with mud, debris and water.

The valley is without power after mudslides destroyed a section of the transmission line over Loup Loup Pass. Communications towers have also been damaged, and phone, Internet and radio communications are down.

All communities in the valley, from Methow to Winthrop, have flooded areas, including two trailer parks in Twisp where some trailers are washing away. Large logs and debris have flooded into Winthrop and jammed into the Highway 20 bridge, potentially damaging the structure.

Highway 153 heading south is impassable due to mudslides and bridge washouts. Many residents throughout the valley are trapped by blocked roads. A dike on the Twisp River has breached, fuel tanks at a gas station in Twisp are under water, and water treatment ponds in Winthrop have flooded, compromising the public water system.

That grim scenario was presented last week to about 60 people who would have to deal with a disaster like this, if it were to happen.

Modeled after the epic flood of 1948, the imaginary situation was created to test how prepared the Methow Valley is to respond to such a disaster.

The test of preparedness was conducted as a “table top” exercise that brought together key players who would respond to the disaster. Many of the participants have already faced true tests of disaster preparedness during wildfires of the past two summers.

“The last time I saw a lot of you was at our last event,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, speaking at the beginning of the session on May 10 in the Winthrop Barn.

The daylong exercise was sponsored by the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery Organization and Okanogan County Department of Emergency Management.

Participants included a diverse group of people representing agencies and organizations likely to play critical roles in dealing with disaster: first responders (police, fire, sheriff, and emergency medical services); electric utilities; elected officials; public works; U.S. Forest Service and state parks; American Red Cross; state transportation, ecology, fish and wildlife departments; National Weather Service; radio stations and newspapers; faith-based organizations; hospitals, hospice and medical providers; ham radio operators; the Methow Valley School District; social service and disaster recovery organizations.

Value of networking

Divided into groups with similar responsibilities and concerns, participants worked through issues they would face and how they would respond, as the disaster evolved from flash flood warnings to the worst-case scenario of severe flooding.

For Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency manager, the most valuable part of the exercise was bringing the key players together.

“The best part was the networking,” Goodall said. “Being able to touch base face-to-face and knowing who’s who.”

Participants in the exercise received copies of the Methow Valley Emergency Plan and were asked to evaluate the plan, which was developed in 2007 after the Tripod Complex Fire threatened Methow Valley communities.

“Find the holes in this plan. We’re going to plug the holes,” said Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, who is part of a local committee charged with updating the plan.

In their groups, participants discussed the array of problems that would arise as the flood disaster unfolded, and ways to address them.

Restoring power, clearing roads, evacuating campgrounds, setting up emergency shelters, monitoring spills of hazardous substances, maintaining communications among critical responders, communicating with the public, and calling in outside resources such as Okanogan County and the National Guard were among dozens of concerns and suggested actions that came out of discussions.

A variety of suggestions emerged for improving emergency preparedness, including developing a list of churches able to provide shelter and support for disaster victims, conducting fuels treatment on McClure Mountain to help protect communications towers from wildfire, developing better plans for animal and livestock rescue, and training more public information officers for emergency situations.

Sandi Scheinberg, coordinator of MethowReady, said she will gather comments from the disaster exercise to assist with updating the valley’s emergency plan, which will then be included in the county’s emergency plans.

Unique issues

As residents learned during the past two summers of wildfire and flooding, the Methow Valley faces unique issues during disasters, Scheinberg said.

“Other communities do not have the same potential for geographic isolation that we do. We are so easily cut off from transportation and communication. We can’t rely on the county to save us,” she said.

MethowReady, a preparedness campaign launched by the Long Term Recovery Organization, has been training neighborhood preparedness leaders to help residents organize and prepare for disaster within their neighborhoods. The next training is scheduled for May 25, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., at Aero Methow Rescue Service headquarters in Twisp.

Cindy Button, director of services for Aero Methow, encouraged people to become trained as neighborhood leaders. “If we know a neighborhood is organized and has a leader, we can write it off our ‘worry list,’” during an emergency, she said.

While government entities have a responsibility to plan for emergencies, individuals also have a responsibility to make their own plans and preparations, Goodall said in comments this week.

“I like to refer it back to households. How are you going to handle your situation? You might handle it differently than the house next to you,” he said.

Goodall said the county is revising the way it conducts emergency notification with the goal of making it less confusing.

The notification system will be modified from what were previously called “evacuation levels” to a system that uses more “common language” and applies the term “evacuation” only at the most serious level, Goodall said.

Level 1 means “alert,” warning residents of current or projected threats from fires or floods. Residents should monitor local media or the county Department of Emergency Management Facebook page for information.

Level 2 means “be ready.” Conditions indicate a good probability that hazards associated with fires or flood are approaching and will limit the ability of first responders to provide protection. Residents should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Level 3 means “immediate evacuation,” due to threats to life and safety, and conditions that severely limit the ability of emergency services to provide protection.

Goodall said residents need to understand that they can’t count on police or fire officials to keep them updated about changing conditions around them during an emergency.

“When a first responder tells you you’re on Level 1 — there’s a fire on the other side of the mountain — that may be your only notification,” Goodall said.

“We want people to understand that if you’re notified of a situation, you are notified and you need to get out of harm’s way sooner rather than later.”

He encouraged people to get information from the Okanogan County Emergency Management Facebook page, or the website, www.okanogandem.org.