Sustainable Practices Create Disaster Resiliency in Portland, Ore.

From cargo bikes to walkability scores, Portland’s green culture is preparing its residents for a disaster.

by / May 2, 2012
Photo courtesy of Ethan Jewett Ethan Jewett

Many residents in Portland, Ore., may be prepared for a disaster — and they haven’t even thought about it. As the city’s residents enlist sustainable practices, from biking to participating in community gardens, they are making themselves and their neighborhoods more disaster resilient.

And a new trend is seeking to take that resiliency and citizens’ ability to act as first responders after a disaster a step further. Cargo or freight bikes are becoming increasingly popular in Portland’s sustainable community, and the benefits they provide like being able to haul gear and supplies seamlessly work into disaster response.

Portland has the Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET), which is similar to Community Emergency Response Teams, which train residents on how to provide disaster assistance within their neighborhoods. NET member Ethan Jewett said that after reading Portland’s emergency plans, he understood that one of the big challenges after a citywide disaster will be what to do with the limited fuel resources. Knowing that if the fuel supply is cut from the city, the remaining resources will be provided to emergency responders and critical infrastructure, Jewett saw a new use for his cargo bike, which he uses to carry his children.

Photo courtesy of Ethan Jewett

“The way that the post-disaster survey of your neighborhood is described in the training is one where you’re basically on foot,” Jewett said, “and it occurred to me that a lot of the stuff that we’re supposed to carry, you could carry a lot more of it on a bike.”

The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) is onboard with promoting the idea. PBEM Director Carmen Merlo said that even if a disaster damages roads and disrupts the fuel supply, provisions like food, water and medicine, will still need to be delivered to the public. “If emergency vehicles can’t get through, other vehicles like bicycles will have no problem or less difficulty in doing so,” she said.

A bike organization, called Shift, has proved the concept that cargo bikes and bike trailers can move “meaningful cargo,” Jewett said. Shift helps Portland residents “move by bike” by bringing people together to move a person’s belongings from one living space to another — all by bike. Jewett said he has seen large items like couches and even a cast iron stove moved on a bicycle.

To preposition tools and supplies that will be necessary for disaster response, Jewett said bike trailers could be stored in the city’s tool libraries, which instead of books, loan tools out to residents for free. The tool libraries are located in different neighborhoods, and the NET members could pick up the tools and trailers from a library after a disaster.

In addition to biking, other sustainable activities are increasing Portland’s disaster resiliency. Community gardens, food carts, canning and preserving food, water catchment and building green homes are prevalent in the city, and although residents may not think of them as disaster preparedness activities, they are.

“When people start to think about getting prepared, it becomes almost overwhelming to a lot of people and what you want to encourage is that they are already doing a lot of things that they may not think of as preparedness,” Merlo said.

Neighborhood Hubs

In addition to the benefits from sustainable practices, PBEM also is benefiting from a recently approved plan that seeks to be a roadmap to the city’s future. The Portland Plan was adopted by the City Council on April 25 and was “developed in response to some of Portland’s most pressing challenges, including income disparities, high unemployment, a low high school graduation rate and environmental concerns,” according to the plan’s website.

Merlo said one of the plan’s features included the 20-minute neighborhood concept: 24 neighborhood hubs were identified and assessed to see what services — like transportation, schools and workplaces — are within a 20-minute walk of each hub. PBEM will do additional emergency planning around the hubs and will use them to position emergency supplies with the goal of keeping residents in their homes after a disaster.

“We know that keeping people in their homes may mean that they don’t have essential services available to them right away,” Merlo said. “They may not have water, sanitation, food — that’s OK, our goal will be to provide that within close distance to their home and so that’s why the adoption of the Portland Plan, this 20-minute neighborhood concept, really lends itself to emergency planning efforts.”

For each of the 24 hubs, PBEM will identify the best way to provide services after an emergency, for example, the appropriate locations for electrical charging stations and medical care points.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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