Preparing for disaster at Portland’s schools, high rises

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The entrance to Chief Joseph Elementary School in north Portland, Ore. (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In Oklahoma, Monday’s tornado caused 200 mile-per-hour winds, and came with a mere 15-minute warning.

And with two schools leveled by that tornado, school officials are taking a closer look at how teachers and students in the Portland area prepare for a disaster.

Tornadoes can, and do, happen here in the Pacific Northwest. The Aumsville tornado, which struck south of Salem on Dec. 14, 2010, is a recent example.

However, the bigger concern is a major earthquake.

“Emergency preparedness training happens every month here at Chief Joseph Elementary School,” said Chief Joseph Principal Joe Galati. “But it’s only required twice a year in Portland public schools, and it just started three years ago thanks to grant funding.”

Principal Galati is big supporter of the drills.

“It does help us,” Galati said. “It is horrible what happened in Oklahoma … and yet the first thing we do when we heard about it is we want to check on our kids.”

In earthquake drills, such as a recent one caught on camera at Roosevelt High School, students take cover under their desks. These drills now happen at every Portland Public School.

“The kids are instructed to get under their desks,” said Erin Hoover Barnett with Portland Public Schools. “And they’re sort of ducking their heads, they’re under the desk and they hold onto the legs of the desk, because the understanding of course is that the furniture will want to travel.”

Teachers are trained to wait in the doorway until it’s safe to escort the students outside.

Galati said Chief Joseph they mix up.

“We’ll shut off certain sections of the building,” he said. “And say, ‘This is where the event is.’ So kids, and teachers, will have to react to that and move to different locations.”

In Monday’s Oklahoma tornado, the teachers played major roles in saving lives in the two schools hit.

“It makes you that much more aware of what we need to do in the event of emergencies,” Galati said. “And that’s why you have the drills — the constant drills — where you’re timing how long it takes to get out of the building, where you’re accounting for every child.”

Like many of those working in downtown Portland high rises, Matt Hunnicutt has never even heard of an earthquake drill in his building.

“I hope they won’t get under my desk,” he said with a chuckle, “because there’s only room for me.”

The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management reports there are many people who may work or even live in a high rise and not know exactly what they are supposed to do if an earthquake hit.

“It’s tempting to say I gotta get out of here right now,” Randy Neves with the bureau told KOIN 6 News. “That’s not the best thing to do while the shaking is happening. When the shaking is happening, learn to drop, cover and hold on.”

Portland Public Schools just started doing earthquake drills like this three years ago.

When an earthquake starts it’s best to get under a desk and hang onto the legs. The next best thing is to stand in a doorway. Once the shaking stops, you can calmly file out. A lot of the buildings are made to withstand the initial hit of an earthquake. However, aftershocks can be even more devastating.

“Whatever you do, even if it’s working, don’t take the elevator,” Neves cautioned for those in fire and earthquake emergencies. “Use the stairs.”

In the event of a real emergency, Hunnicut said he thinks people in the office would take it seriously. But during his time on the 14th floor of a downtown complex, he’s seen other drills go up in smoke.

“We’ve had fire drills,” he said. “I’m pretty sure not everybody leaves the building during a fire drill.”

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