Taking preparedness to the next level

Georgia and John Galus display some of the items in their preparedness kit. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Georgia and John Galus display some of the items in their preparedness kit.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

If awards were given out for emergency preparedness, Georgia and John Galus would be serious contenders.

Consider what’s in their Go Kits, backpacks they’d “grab and go” in the event of an emergency: Wool socks, wool gloves, wool hats, extra eyeglasses, Luna bars, a whistle, a knife, matches, personal papers, a list of important telephone numbers, emergency blankets, a week’s worth of medical prescriptions and a first-aid kit.

They’ve also got water strategically stationed in their home, as well as bags in each of their cars that include many of the same items plus a few bulkier things — sweatpants and extra raincoats, for example.

By their own admission, they’re remarkably well prepared — with professions and interests that lend to such preparedness. John is a ham-radio operator and a member of the Island’s Community Emergency Response Team; Georgia is a nurse and a member of the Island’s Medical Reserve Corps.

But anyone can take steps towards preparedness, they say. And like insurance or a working smoke alarm, what it provides is peace of mind.

“The beauty of a Go Kit for me is that I fix it once in January, and then I forget about it the rest of the year,” Georgia said.

“Just do a little bit at a time,” added John. “If it’s too hard, you won’t do it.”

Their message of preparedness — a clarion call that VashonBePrepared has issued for years — is about to be amplified on Vashon.

The volunteer-run group has been working for several years to raise awareness about the kind of emergencies that could paralyze the Island — from a multi-day snowstorm to a devastating earthquake — and to get Islanders to undertake a few critical steps to ensure they could weather any contingency. As a result, said Joe Ulatoski, who started the effort, “We are probably the best prepared community in the state right now.”

Even so, he said, he and other volunteers with VashonBePrepared are concerned that the community is still far from being ready. Based on the number of Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations — NEROs — that have been formed on Vashon over the past few years, at best 2,000 Islanders have taken steps towards preparedness, he said.

So now the small nonprofit is attempting a new approach to engage Islanders in the importance of emergency readiness. It plans to ask Islanders to fill out a questionnaire about their personal degree of preparedness, offering those who complete the survey tickets for a drawing. Several emergency-oriented prizes — from a top-of-the-line generator to a propane camp stove — will be up for grabs.

The survey will work on many levels, organizers said.

It will enable them to get a better sense of the Island’s depth and breadth of readiness. It will give them an opportunity to engage Islanders, who will be asked to turn in their completed forms on Oct. 10 or 17 to several Island locations (the two grocery stores, the library or the farmers market), where volunteers will be staffing booths.

And finally, it will give Islanders a chance to see for themselves just how prepared they are. The survey includes a scorecard, ranking Islanders’ level of preparedness — from “excellent” to “needs work” — based on their answers.

“The goal is to increase personal responsibility, to

get more people to be prepared both in their home and in their car,” said May Gerstle, a VashonBePrepared stalwart. “We’ve come to the realization that the organization cannot take care of everyone.”

The fact that less than a third of the Island’s residents have formed NEROs, she added, “gave us a clue that maybe we’re howling in the wind and need to be more targeted in our approach and ask people, ‘OK, what have you yourself done?’”

Those involved in the preparedness effort say the stakes on Vashon are high.

In the case of a major disaster, the Island could be completely cut off from the mainland; a bad earthquake, for instance, could put the ferry docks out of commission. And even if the emergency were not that severe, Vashon would likely get little attention from emergency responders based on the mainland, where they’d have much more critical infrastructure to tend to.

What’s more, Ulatoski said, new evidence shows the Seattle-Tacoma area — and by extension Vashon — is even more susceptible to the “big one” than scientists had previously thought.

According to an article in The News Tribune last month, an earthquake triggered by the Cascadia subduction zone — two massive tectonic plates 25 miles beneath the ground — could be centered much closer to the Seattle-Tacoma area. Scientists had thought such an earthquake would be centered off the Washington coast; they now believe the epicenter could be 30 miles inland, somewhere beneath the Olympic Peninsula.

Were the two plates, which are locked together, to snap, as scientists believe they eventually will, the earthquake could be catastrophic — a massive 9.0 or greater on the Richter scale.

But even a bad snowstorm can paralyze Vashon, Ulatoski added.

“We had six inches of snow last year, and I had a devil of a time getting out to my car,” he said.

In the event of a major incident, VashonBePrepared and Vashon Island Fire & Rescue will set up an Emergency Operations Center. But the group will be overwhelmed if Islanders aren’t organized in NEROs and prepared to take care of themselves and their neighbors, Ulatoski said.

“They’ll call and say, ‘Take care of me.’ And if you imagine the number of people from all those homes coming into the EOC and saying ‘take care of me,’ you can begin to imagine the absolute chaos we’d face.”

That chaos is something Georgia and John Galus think about.

“If we can take care of ourselves and two other homes, that will make a difference,” John said.

Asked why they’ve poured so much of their energy into preparedness, they note that it’s second nature to them, in part because of Georgia’s work as a registered nurse. Over the years, she’s learned the value of having bandages, antiseptic cream and tweezers at hand.

But she said it’s also in her blood because she was born and raised on Vashon — and thus deeply appreciates the Island’s time-honored spirit of self-reliance.

“And Vashon’s different,” she added. “We can’t always run to the grocery store. It’s always been a limited supply here on Vashon. And I like that about Vashon. I like that people want to help each other, but they do it from a position of strength.”

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