Think back to a year ago. It was a dark and stormy Thursday night, and the wind was howling — gusts of 70 miles per hour or more. Trees were toppling and power lines were coming down everywhere. The entire Island finally went dark around 11 p.m. that night.
It was Saturday morning before any power was restored and even then to only about half the Island. Some neighborhoods didn’t get their electricity restored for 10 days, coming back on just in time for Christmas. For our Northwest electric utilities, it was the most damaging storm in history. At the peak of the repair effort, Puget Sound Energy had 150 workers on Vashon clearing downed trees and stringing new wire.
Here on the Island, people pulled together as they always do. The ad-hoc chainsaw brigade was out in force Friday breaking the early morning silence as they went from intersection to intersection and from house to house clearing the way so people could get around.
On Saturday, with some power restored, there was gasoline rationing at the one station that had electricity. Dozens of people lined up for lattes at the Thriftway that day, the only working coffee stand in town. As the days wore on, neighbors who did have power (or a generator) shared showers and warm beds.
So now, one year after the so-called Hanukkah Eve storm, this is a good time for us to take a minute and think back over the last year of work by VashonBePrepared and all of our community partners who try to help the Island better prepare for a disaster. There’s no doubt — as uncomfortable as it was — that the storm was a great test of our readiness. It taught us a lot about how to be prepared, and as a result the community has accomplished much in the last year.
Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, in collaboration with VashonBePrepared, has developed a new four-level activation procedure. It’s very flexible and will allow all of us to respond to whatever comes our way in an organized manner, fitting the response to the specific circumstances of an emergency.
The Community Emergency Response Team program has grown to more than 150 trained people with two more classes held this year and a formal program for registering and providing state insurance protection for our emergency volunteers during an activation.
Our neighbor-to-neighbor network has grown to 100 Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations (NEROs). NEROs meet periodically to make sure everyone in a 20- or 30-home radius is acquainted with each other and understands how they can help out in an emergency, and how they can report conditions up to our Emergency Operations Center.
Representatives of VashonBePrepared’s Emergency Operations Center Team have met six times with Puget Sound Energy since the windstorm. We’ve built a significantly improved system for tracking the status of electricity and natural gas infrastructure on the Island during an emergency. It works, too, having been tested several times already as we moved into the bad weather season.
Voice of Vashon has its first transmitter on the air for emergency broadcasting. Funding has been raised by the Vashon Island Rotary for the second transmitter and plans are underway to bring a third transmitter online sometime in 2008. This will give us whole-Island coverage for emergency information. This system really works. It’s been used twice already — during a recent all-Island phone outage and a brief all-Island power outage as well.
The ham radio operators have been working hard on an amazing emergency e-mail system that can use radio to connect into the Internet, even if our local phone system goes down. This ham radio e-mail system proved itself during the recent flooding in Oregon, when several counties relied on it as their only connection to the outside world. We’ll be glad to have it in an emergency on Vashon, where the potential for ferries being out means we could easily be isolated for an extended time.
Finally, to test all this out, our all-Island disaster drill in October came out very well indeed. Again, there are long lists of improvements we want to make. Always, we learn lessons. But we proved that we can make our disaster response work even if all the phones and cell phones and traditional Internet systems go down.
To everyone who has been part of this magnificent effort, thank you. You’ve worked hard this last year. Take a moment to feel proud and savor the moment.
And to everyone who doesn’t have 10 days of water and food set aside at home, did you realize that we are moving into the heart of the storm season? The best way for you to take care of your family is to be prepared and self-sufficient.
Check out the information at www.VashonBePrepared.org, and ask yourself the question: “Are you ready?”
— Rick Wallace is the vice president for operations and plans for VashonBePrepared.