To the surprise of no one, and to the disgust of just about everyone attending a meeting with Coast Guard brass from the North Bend Station, the North Bend captain said, “My orders are to close down the Newport Air Rescue facility on November 30th.”
At a community meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Newport Campus of Oregon Coast Community College, Coast Guard officials repeated their well-covered explanations for the closure over the past two weeks:
* A Coast Guard helo at Coast Guard Astoria and another at North Bend can adequately cover the coastline from Kape Kiwanda to the California border and such coverage meets all Coast Guard response standards.
* The Coast Guard contends that with recent upgrades in emergency locator equipment aboard fishing and recreation boats, as well as “on body” devices, locating people in distress will be much quicker – requiring less search time once on scene.
* The Coast Guard said even in cold offshore waters, those in survival suits can remain alive for many hours thereby greatly enhancing the chance of surviving until the Coast Guard arrives.
* They also reported that the present five rescue helicopters for the Oregon Coast, will be reduced to three active search and rescue helos. A fourth helo will be held on reserve and the fifth will be transferred out of state.
* The Coast Guard said it would save six million dollars a year by closing the Newport helo facility.
Many in the audience, including State Representative David Gomberg, seriously questioned the magnitude of the savings of the closure.
When confronted with the fact that tourists who go out on charter boats don’t carry personal radio locator devices or survival suits (not that they’d have time to put them on if they had them) the Coast Guard didn’t have much to say, except to re-emphacize that even with the withdrawal of the Newport helo, the Coast Guard’s response standards would be met.
Some in the audience pointed out that in the event of a major offshore earthquake and following tsunami, the Newport Airport facility would be the only one that is above the tsunami’s reach. The Coast Guard responded that in the event of a severe earthquake, helos on the ground would be so badly damaged they would not be flyable anyway.
Those in the audience, including the Newport Fishermen’s Wives were unconvinced to say the least. In fact they got up and left the room after saying as much to the Coast Guard.
Depoe Bay Fire-Rescue Chief Josh Williams told the Coast Guard that last weekend’s rescue of five young tourists at Fogarty Creek State Beach could have had a very different outcome without the swift response of the Newport Helo. He said the tide was coming in and the waves were so high that they nearly over-topped the rock the young victims were clinging to.
In addition to strong public testimony opposed to the closure of the Newport facility, Governor John Kitzhaber sent a letter to the meeting indicating his strong opposition to the closure as well. Kitzhaber wrote that in light of the growth of Newport’s commercial and sports fishing industries, the home porting of NOAA’s Pacific Research Fleet at Newport, the continued expansion of HMSC’s marine sciences programs aboard their oceanographic research vessel R/V Oceanus, and the reactivation of Newport’s International Terminal, the need for the Newport-based rescue helo operation is far greater than the day it was initiated in 1986.
The North Bend Coast Guard captain said that his commanders in Washington DC are meeting with the Oregon Congressional Delegation, which includes U.S. Senator Ron Wyden.
Representative Gomberg, like many others, has urged a delay in the fast approaching deadline for facility closure. Congressman Kurt Schrader, who was also at the meeting, observed that a delay “might be doable.”
Aides to Senator Wyden report only that discussions have been ongoing in Washington between the Coast Guard and the state’s congressional delegation. But those aides have had little to report about how those discussions are going.
The next community meeting about the Coast Guard Rescue Helo base closure comes up this Monday night, 5:30pm, also at the Newport Campus of Oregon Coast Community College. Representative Gomberg said although Coast Guard higher-ups have been invited to attend, there has been no indication, thus far, that they’ll show up.