A mid-January flood in Oregon damaged about 160 State of Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) vehicles in Salem. Fleet employees saved newer vehicles by moving them to a safer location as water levels rose during the flood, but the fleet is working to improve how it protects State assets in the event of a catastrophe in the future, including conducting vehicle evacuation drills.
At the Scene of the Flood
“We came in on Jan 19th and water started pouring into the parking lot, and it kept coming,” recalled Brian King, fleet manager for the DAS’ State Services Division.
Water levels rose at historically unprecedented rates for the area. There were more than 400 vehicles parked on-site in the flood plain that day, and fleet employees rushed out to move newer vehicles to a safer location as water levels rose. Water reached up to the dashboard in some vehicles.
“We went out and moved all the newest [vehicles] that we could, until it got too dangerous to move anything,” King said.
Although water came right up to the doors of the building housing fleet administration, the building was one of the few properties not damaged. King said the flood damaged the fuel island.
On Feb. 10, King reported things had settled down, with the crew beginning to move back to the fleet facility. The relocated daily rental operation, which fleet had moved to an alternate site for a few weeks, was moved back to the original site by mid-February.
Because of the fleet staff’s efforts in moving newer vehicles to safety first, most of the damaged vehicles were older. Fleet services had slated many of the damaged vehicles to go to surplus sale, and it had put others on hold for seasonal use in the spring and summer. Fleet services contracted with Copart to sell the 60 damaged and 88 totaled vehicles, which are expected to go up for online bidding in early May. King said the fleet determined the damaged but not totaled vehicles that will be sold would not be economical to repair. Another 12 vehicles damaged in the flood were fully repaired and put back in service.
As of March 30, the department had not yet settled whether the State’s insurance policy would kick in and pay for the damaged vehicles or whether it would come out of the self-insurance fund.
Planning for Future Catastrophes
The last flood happened in 1996, but it was slower, and there was ample warning for vehicles to be moved from the flood plain. The department based its business continuity plan on that flood and a possible earthquake scenario. The fleet could not apply the plan to the January flood, which, with its extremely rapid water rise, some called a flash flood. To address further flood catastrophes, the fleet division is working to improve vehicle evacuation procedures and relocating vehicle storage locations.
“With the closure of our Portland and Eugene sites a couple years ago due to budget reductions, all of our staging of vehicles for new arrivals, seasonal preparation, and disposition now occur at the one Salem site in the flood plain. We had over 400 vehicles on site when the flood came pouring in,” King said. “To lower the [number] of vehicles to move in a disaster, we have partnered with Department of Public Safety Standards and Training for storage space for staging some of our seasonal vehicles and are working with Department of Corrections for additional space.”
In addition, the fleet is conducting vehicle evacuation drills that involve calling in staff from neighboring state programs to help move vehicles. The March 28th drill called for 30 of the neighboring staff members to move 10 vehicles each to three evacuation sites. King said they’re still working on perfecting the drill but he expects they can move 300 vehicles in 2.5 to 3.5 hours with 50 drivers. The next drill will test the evacuation program with 50 drivers.
The drill also tested the “call tree” for notifying evacuation staff drivers and those on evacuation sites. “We discovered that many or our contacts failed to answer when called because they were in meetings,” King said. Only 24 drivers responded to the drill. To counter this, the fleet plans to implement a software solution that will simultaneously text and email contacts on a group basis, he said.
Additionally, the drill tested “our updated system for key organization,” King said. “Formerly, our keys and vehicle packets were organized based on their status within our process and if they were to be assigned as permanent, seasonal or daily rental pool vehicles. This worked great for day to day operations but when we needed to rapidly remove vehicles during the flood, it slowed us down. Our new system is location based so we have the keys organized to where each vehicle is situated in the lot. We are still working to adapt this new way to best fit with day-to-day operational needs but it allowed us to hand out 20 vehicles for the evacuation drill in about three minutes. Each driver was also given a card with the alternate site, directions, and maps to guide them on their way (see sample).
Learning from Experience
King said they’ve been able to learn and improve emergency processes as a result of the flood.
“I am very proud of how well our crew handled the emergency and thankful to the others that helped us respond and to prepare for the future,” he said.
He said he reacted in the same way anyone else would have, which was to “do your best to respond to the situation at hand, save as much property as possible, and above all, keep everyone safe while cutting your losses and getting out of harm’s way when necessary. Then, learn from that experience to be ready for a similar scenario.”
The flood led to a better understanding of how area creeks and rivers react to certain weather events, and how to use stream gauge tools available. Better knowledge and tools will allow for earlier flood warnings in the future. It also allows for better contacts with city and agency partners to improve coordination and information sharing.
“We check in with each other regularly when anything changes with the situation to make sure we all know and can make plans accordingly,” King said.
As for other fleet managers dealing with their own regional catastrophes, King said, “My advice to fellow fleet managers is to plan as best you can for disasters and do live drills where people, resources, and assets actually move. This is costly and time consuming in an era where we don’t have that to spare, but it is vital to minimize losses and keep staff safe in emergency situations.”