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Business community joins forces to prepare for disaster, emergencies

With the threat of a hard winter looming and the perpetual possibility of a severe earthquake shaking the region, several Island businesses have banded together and are making strides in preparing for emergencies and possible disaster.

In recent years, many Islanders have taken steps to become prepared, but until this fall, those efforts focused mostly on homes and neighborhoods. Now, at the urging of Debi Richards of the Chamber of Commerce, Vashon’s preparedness groups and other volunteers, emergency preparedness is taking root in the heart of town and beyond as business owners take a hard look at what they need to do.

Richards, the chamber’s executive director, has been the driving force behind the efforts. Her awareness of Vashon’s vulnerability was raised last year, she said, when she attended a groundwater tour on the Island, followed by meetings with VashonBePrepared, and began to realize the implications of a disaster on the Island.

“No one is coming to help us, and we are on our own,” she said.

Given her position with the chamber, her thoughts turned to Island businesses and what they might face in an emergency or worse.

“I thought someone needs to lead the charge to get businesses organized,” she said.

In October, she called a disaster preparedness meeting for businesses, which several Island preparedness officials and volunteers led, including Fire Chief Hank Lipe, Rick Wallace, vice president of VashonBePrepared, and Joe Ulatoski, considered the grandfather of Island preparedness.

The meeting was well attended. “I was amazed at the level of interest on the part of businesses,” Richards said. “They understood the message and wanted to take action.”

Borrowing from VashonBePrepared’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations, or NEROs — groups of neighbors organized to check on one another in a disaster and report to officials — Richards divided Vashon into eight business communities based on their location, with the intent that businesses in those groups will get prepared and organized and plan to check on one another and report to officials if a disaster strikes.

Of the eight neighborhoods, three have made considerable progress, Richards said.

Each business that attended the fall chamber meeting received a disaster preparedness packet tailored to business needs, and the three active groups are working on several of the to-do items, including completing forms that list contact information for the business owner, skills people have that might be useful in an emergency, contact information for all employees and the location of shut-off valves and safety items. The information will be posted in each business.

Each business will also be responsible for checking on two designated businesses nearby. In a disaster, one leader from each group will report in with neighborhood damages and injuries, streamlining the influx of calls to disaster officials.

“They will not have 100 phone calls,” Richards said. “They will have eight.”

Businesses are also encouraged to create a full plan for disaster, including determining critical operations, establishing plans for communication after a disaster and maintaining a backup of electronic records.

One of Vashon’s leaders in business preparedness is Sawbones Worldwide. According to Human Resources Manager Tom Beall, the company has taken preparation issues seriously for at least a decade and is participating in this new effort as well. Currently, 140 employees work there, and the company has enough food and water for every employee for three days, as well as a considerable supply of other emergency supplies, including blankets, first-aid kits, camping stoves and flashlights. Two of their three buildings have a generator, and Beall hopes to have a third generator online within three months — so that in the event of a prolonged power outage, each building could function 24 hours a day, the company could continue to meet its obligations and staff could continue to earn their paychecks and have a safe, warm place to stay if they wished.

Beall, who is serving as the neighborhood captain for businesses on S.W. 188th Street, which includes the tofu maker Island Spring, the Sheffield Building, the Open Space for Arts & Community and the Beauty Nook, noted that representatives from those businesses have been meeting this fall and winter and are making some progress.

“I’m really happy to see this being done,” he said. “It’s easy to sit down and say this is going to happen. It’s so much better when it’s actually being done.”

In town, Jan Lyell of Barber and Beauty Shoppe has stepped forward to coordinate efforts in her neighborhood, which extends from S.W. 174th Street northward.

“I think it is important that the businesses get together and plan,” she said. “It is not a matter of if, but when.”

Lyell, who works by herself, said she is heartened to know that in a disaster someone from Edward Jones and Fair Isle Animal Clinic would check on her.

The neighborhood businesses have more work to do, but Lyell noted they have made progress already, and even if disaster would strike today, they are better prepared than they were just months ago.

Across town in the 100th Ave. neighborhood, Karol Lake of Lake, Kennedy, McCullough CPAs has also stepped up and begun contacting business people, most of whom have been receptive, she said.

She was inspired to act after watching a presentation by Wallace at the chamber disaster meeting. A vibrant graphic from the U.S. Geological Survey showed that a quake in the Cascadia subduction zone or the newly studied Tacoma fault could carry severe repercussions for Vashon; nearly the entire Island was colored red to indicate severe shaking.

“It was like a bull’s eye on Vashon,” she said. “It is right under our feet, and no one is going to come. … It got my attention.”

Wallace, well versed in the possibilities of disaster and its likely effects in this region, said there could be a considerable economic impact if Vashon experienced a disaster. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said, 40 percent of businesses fail after a disaster and do not come back.

“These businesses are the beating heart of the Island,” Wallace said.

He also noted that some do not believe there will be a large earthquake any time soon. But everyone believes that there will be hard winters here in the next few years, he said, and preparations for those events help with larger ones.

“If you prepare for a tough winter, you’re a lot of the way prepared for a tough earthquake,” he said.

At Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, Chief Lipe said he’s pleased the business community is taking action and noted he and others in the preparedness community will assist in whatever ways they can to continue the process.

“I am very excited — exuberant, I suppose — that the business community has embraced this planning effort,” he said. “It’s people that make the difference. That’s what is so special here. The people are making the difference.”

 

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