Evelyn Swart

A little over 20 years ago, this grandmother was in Hermiston sitting with her infant grandson when suddenly sirens began to go off. The sirens continued for the longest time bringing back memories of old war movies with sirens warning English residents that incoming enemy planes were about to attack.

As a visitor and knowing nothing about a preparedness exercise for the possible event of a chemical problem at the Umatilla Army Depot, the grandmother looked outside for a clue to whatever was going on. Cars were going by on the street the same as usual, people were walking their dogs, everything seemed normal enough.

She called a friend who said, “You know, I wondered about that, too.”

When the grandson’s parents came home from work, they had stories to tell about the funny (at the time) mistakes that occurred while the exercise was in progress. The maintenance crew at the high school had not been informed about the exercises, the special education teachers at an elementary school were dealing with distraught children who did not understand what was happening.

Of course, this was the first preparedness practice and there were many problems to take care of. The federal agency in charge had a lot of improvements to make in terms of communication. The federal government spent untold millions of dollars to guarantee the safety of the residents of nearby towns in Umatilla County. In every school in Hermiston, a gymnasium or multipurpose room was made capable of being sealed with all of the students and teachers protected inside. Smaller towns in the area were furnished with fleets of school buses to take everyone away from the dangerous chemicals. All of these safeguards were in place in addition to the kits to seal a room in homes and special radios to warn families of danger.

Preparations for the eventuality of a chemical spill that could kill a large portion of Umatilla County residents were planned and implemented with the federal government in charge; the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (according to the Chieftain editorial). I never heard of a democratic vote for this program, but there had been concern about a terrible mishap for a long time. Fortunately, the preparations were never tested, because the chemical spill did not happen and the dangerous materials were safely removed.

Could the preparations made for a chemical spill in Umatilla County in some way help us know what to do in the present or future pandemics? Maybe. But the pandemic is worldwide and that is no comparison with the size of Umatilla County.

Should the Oregon Legislature decide whether or not to fight the pandemic? Maybe they would call a special session, or maybe a group of legislators would decide to leave the state so no vote could be taken.

In an emergency, should the governor be allowed to make any decisions to ameliorate suffering? Or does it matter that the governor was elected by a majority of voters, not including those of the opposing party?

Let’s deal with the present pandemic as best we can, but put politics on the shelf while we do what we can do to sustain life and health in Oregon.

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A 20-year resident of Wallowa County, Evelyn Swart frequently shares thoughts, ideas and opinions in letters to the editor. She would like to see more people share their thoughts, as well. She is a former educator in the capacities of teaching, consulting, and administration.

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