Rural Community Emergency Response – 2014

March 27, 2014

A message from Jess Campbell: As the aftermath of the deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington unfolds, rural emergency response is the topic of many conversations happening across the country. Human dignity organizers in Cottage Grove have been mulling that same topic since February after responding to the aftermath of the worst ice storm in Lane County history that left thousands without power for over a week and many of the most isolated families in the County without the means of leaving their properties for food, water, and supplies.

What I thought was a brief visit with my family in Cottage Grove turned into a week-long adventure in figuring out an all-volunteer emergency response. The experience left me and others in my community wondering: what role does emergency response play in our movement for human dignity? Do you and your human dignity group know what you would do in an emergency? 

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that when crisis struck close to home, I had other human dignity leaders in Cottage Grove to learn alongside and experiment with as neighbors tried to take care of neighbors on the fly. We strategically leveraged power to make county-wide shifts and two months later, our core team of 8 dedicated folks are figuring out how we can prepare ourselves to do better next time — because there will be a next time. Read more below!

It has been an honor to organize alongside such incredible folks! Thank you, Cristina, Spenser, Melinda, Kevin, Bedo, Steve, Ivan, Trish, Jimmy, Janetta, and dozens of others who pitched in and made things happen! You all inspire me with your brilliance, generosity, and spirit of justice!

I was visiting my family in Cottage Grove in February when we got some impressive weather: first snow, and then several inches of freezing rain. Trees weighed down by inches of ice were breaking and falling (see the photo above — weighed down with two inches of ice, those fir trees look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book). Friday evening we lost power. The next morning we saw that we had a snapped utility pole and half a mile of uninsulated high-voltage powerlines blocking our only road on or off of our rural property.

Three days later, we had used up our recommended 3-day emergency kit of food, water, and propane for heat. Our utility, a beloved Public Utility District, was so slammed that we couldn’t get a call through their system and resorted to Twitter and Facebook to notify them of our outage. Over 12,000 people were without power in our PUD alone — over half of their customers — and, being a small PUD that only serves rural parts of Lane County, they couldn’t respond quickly. Without any estimates of when we’d see a crew, I climbed over the snapped utility pole and power lines to walk several miles to town for supplies.

Once I got to town, I saw the magnitude of what had happened. The entire town of Cottage Grove was hurting, and every local store had sold out of propane. Without a source of heat, I put out a plea on Facebook, and one of my friends, an incredible Occupy Cottage Grove organizer, responded in less than thirty seconds that he’d pick me up and help me problem-solve. Ultimately, he gave me his extra propane canisters and gave me a ride as close as he could to home.

Monday, we called the fire department. They said they’d come out and move the snapped electrical pole so we could drive out to town… But the fire department ended up calling the PUD first, and the PUD told them they would restore power to our area that day — boy were they wrong! By the end of the day, over 9,000 folks were still without power and it was clear we weren’t going to be helped. My mom, my brother, and I got our dogs and hiked out over those down power lines to town.

We are extremely privileged. We are able-bodied and, even though it was a hard hit, we could afford a hotel in town for four more nights. It soon became clear that many other folks weren’t so privileged — already isolated families were trapped by live lines or trees and couldn’t get out, couldn’t get water or groceries, had run out of firewood or propane, and no one was responding to their pleas for help. You could watch the PUD’s Facebook page for up-to-the-minute updates of people whose livestock were starving or without water (well pumps don’t work without electricity and the temperatures were still below freezing), or who were relying on generators for their medical equipment and were almost out of gas. What about the folks who had no way to charge their phones?

I put out a note on Facebook to see if folks wanted to get together to talk about what we could do, and soon a small team of folks formed. Folks from Occupy Cottage Grove, ForestWeb, and Blackberry Pie Society pulled together to set up our “office” in the local bakery by day, bar by night and got to work. I ran between City Hall, dropping in on the City Manager and Public Works, and the Bookmine, owned by our allies and local human dignity group organizers, rounding up folks to help brainstorm the next steps.

Soon we had the names of the folks at the County level who were supposed to be responding to emergency needs but weren’t. The County said they weren’t aware of any needs. They were shocked when we explained that people were on day five of no electricity and no water, isolated because of trees and power lines in the road. The county told us “Eugene is okay so Lane County doesn’t need to respond”. What?! We left Senator Prozanski a voicemail asking him to help put some pressure on and got a quick reply that his office was leaning hard on the County to begin providing some basic relief.

After a day of investigating and discovering no agency was aware of the reality in rural Lane County, we called for a meeting that evening to plan our next steps. A handful of area human dignity group organizers gathered and we quickly ironed out a plan to do our emergency response. We would find information any way we could — folks were screaming on the utilities’ Facebook pages at this point, so that was one source of information — and we would send a team out to knock on doors. If we couldn’t get to their door, we would cut the tree or the utility pole out of the way. If they needed something we didn’t already have in the vehicle, we would problem-solve that from our “office”.

We already had the Humane Society on board with extra pet food, and the Hay Bank ready in case we encountered hungry livestock. While one organizer called the local newspaper editor to see if he could get us more detailed information on who needed help, another couple of organizers ran to the bar to announce that we needed volunteers during a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser. Soon we had a list of our first incredible volunteers, which included medics, drivers, and folks who were ready to use their chainsaws!

At that same meeting, we got our local PUD board member on the phone at the suggestion of one of our core organizers, who also happens to be his neighbor. Once on the phone, he committed to holding the PUD’s feet to the fire. The PUD was way under capacity to respond and it was time to ask for help. In the meantime, the PUD needed to stop calling off the fire department — that’s a silly mistake to make in the name of PR that could cost people their lives.

We left that meeting sharing why we had spent 12-18 hours that day fact-finding and organizing around this. One organizer remarked, “These are the moments where we are able justify building community — it really could become a matter of life or death.” Another said, “This is a wake-up call. As our safety nets fall apart, it is going to be up to us to hold each other up. If we say we are for human dignity, we need to make sure our community is there for each other to make sure no one’s safety is at risk.”

The next morning we met at our “office” and got our team ready for the media to arrive. We explained to the news crew that we felt we needed to act because neighbors need to take care of neighbors in these situations, because if we don’t take care of each other, who else will? While I took the news crew up to our property — an example of one family’s needs not being met, and look at that, it’s my home, how convenient! — the crew in town assembled a van-load of firewood, and cases of water, and got a team of volunteers together to go out to check on folks who had been without power for six days. The news crew returned just in time to follow them out as they began canvassing rural streets to see what needs neighbors had! For only having five people activated that morning, the news segment made us look big and powerful — just as we had hoped! 

This is where we began seeing real successes! The County, under pressure from the media and Sen. Prozanski’s office, put up a 211 line for a few hours and began providing real relief to trapped families, delivering food, water, firewood, and propane. We kept the pressure on by publicly asking hard questions: The county is advertising the 211 line on the news — what happens if you don’t have electricity to watch the news? One day isn’t good enough, will you open the 211 line again tomorrow and the next day? The County responded by keeping their line open overnight and through the next days.

Secondly, we leaned on the County and the state to declare an emergency to prioritize getting additional utility crews out immediately. We mobilized our new relationships with our local PUD board member and Sen. Prozanski’s office to help us move the idea. Soon utility crews were pouring in from across the state to restore power!

The next week, we sat down together to figure out what would happen next. We just had this experience where we identified a gigantic hole in our safety net. We tried our best to problem-solve in the moment and just a few of us managed to get the County to move, the state to move, and built some strategic relationships along the way. Luckily we had a solid network of human dignity organizers to mobilize, because who knows how difficult it would have been to respond without that community infrastructure already in place!

After a couple of hours of asking each other tough questions, we came out resolved that we want to try to figure out a rural neighbor-to-neighbor response that allows us to meet each other’s needs without relying on agencies who may not be able to respond. We also left with some clarity that we wanted to spend some time figuring out how to respond in an economic crisis (what if folks can’t afford the gas to get their food boxes from the food bank? It happened back in 2008) or, god forbid, a hate crime.

Leaving that meeting with more questions than answers, we began planning some fact-finding roundtables! We continue to be puzzled about how decisions are made about emergency response (who is prioritized and how?), and even the agencies we spoke to during the ice storm fallout seemed just as puzzled as us. Several encouraged us to get them rounded up to have a conversation, so we are! Next Tuesday we will hold our first roundtable where local leaders will sit alongside different government agencies that play a role in disaster response, such as the City, the County, the rural fire department, etc. Each agency will share its role in emergencies, who it communicates with, and how decisions are made internally and regionally. Together we will map out ways to work together more effectively, including prioritizing rural, isolated, and low-income areas for response — the folks who were helped last after the ice storm, and who will continue to be helped last unless we confront it.

On the horizon is another roundtable to dive into what kind of response our community wants to build, which will convene community groups ranging from the Kiwanis to the Granges to churches. In the meantime, they are encouraging us as Cottage Grove residents to band together to make sure our neighbors are prepared to take care of each other.

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