Islanders say stormy weather means time to get set for winter

Last Friday as temperatures dipped toward freezing, Spring Beach residents donned their coats and headed to one neighbor’s home. On the agenda for the evening was to discuss what they would do should the wintery weather take a turn for the worse.

Last Friday as temperatures dipped toward freezing, Spring Beach residents donned their coats and headed to one neighbor’s home. On the agenda for the evening was to discuss what they would do should the wintery weather take a turn for the worse.

“It’s getting people to say if we have a storm and we have three generators, those houses will help take care of the others,” said Debi Richards, a VashonBePrepared board member who helped lead the meeting.

As the region recovered from a storm last week that brought frigid wind gusts and widespread power outages, Richards and others on Vashon said the weather should serve as a reminder to prepare for the coming winter storm season.

“This is just the early warning,” said Rick Wallace, also with VashonBePrepared.

About 6,500 homes and business on Vashon lost power during last Tuesday’s windstorm, when winds reaching 60 mph ripped through the region. Some homes were dark until Thursday afternoon, according to Puget Sound Energy (PSE). A similar windstorm two weeks earlier knocked out power to 3,000.

“Now we’ve had two periods where almost everyone on the island at one time or another lost power,” Wallace said. “This is your alarm clock going off, saying, ‘Winter is happening. I need to get ready.’”

Experts say it’s not yet clear what winter has in store for the Pacific Northwest, but more storms are possible. Forecasters have been predicting an El Niño winter, bringing weather that’s warmer and drier than average to the region. But Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Seattle office, said that the El Niño weather pattern could be a weak one. The latest forecasts call for a 58 percent chance of El Niño in the next three months.

“Things are looking like it could occur, but anything could happen,” Burg said, adding that an El Niño wouldn’t necessarily preclude a major storm.

“We have had storms during El Niño years,” he said.

When storms hit the region, many believe Vashon is especially vulnerable. The trees that cover the island become hazards in the wind, falling over roads and onto power lines. PSE employs two repairmen who live on Vashon, but when damage requires more help, it relies on off-island crews, which can take time to get to the island.

And when wintery weather brings snow or ice, only the island’s main highway and most-used sideroads see plowing and ice removal, leaving many stranded down unplowed roads or long driveways.

To that end, Wallace and other local volunteers are not only urging preparedness, but trying to make it easier for islanders to handle storms.

Wintertime is when a troupe of volunteers with Voice of Vashon (VoV) are busier than ever, trying to reach Vashon residents with real-time information about power outages, road conditions and ferry delays. The emergency alerts began broadcasting seven years ago on 1650 AM and are now put out on social media, the VoV website and the VashonAll, an email listserv with 1,600 subscribers. The 1650 AM station can now also be accessed on the KVSH app for smartphones and tablets, and Voice of Vashon is working to get alerts bannered on the app and its website and broadcast on KVSH — the new FM station — as well.

“We’re still in our infancy stage technology-wise and still pushing forward to try to reach more of the community,” said Luke McQuillin, who heads VoV’s alert team.

McQuillin said there are currently seven volunteers who take turns being on duty a week at a time for the alerts, which they record from home. They are typically on standby from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to disseminate information and are ready to work around the clock in a major emergency.

“There is a level of excitement about it. … It’s sort of a thrill to feel like I can really help, and it’s important,” he said.

Still, McQuillin said, the alerts require a significant commitment, and the team has had trouble keeping volunteers. He said he’d like to enter the winter storm season with at least 10 people on board.

“If we had more people, it would help get some of the loose ends tightened up a little bit,” he said.

Puget Sound Energy is also devising new ways to communicate this winter. The PSE website has a new outage map that marks all known outages, lists how many are affected and in some instances gives an estimated time for restoration.

Patti McClements, PSE’s community services manager for Vashon, said the power company is also about to announce a new smartphone app that will give similar information.

“Of course, the old fashioned way of calling us still works,” she said.

VashonBePrepared is also stressing an old-fashioned notion this winter — getting to know your neighbors. The nonprofit is beginning another push for island neighborhoods to start or revive NEROs, or Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations.

In past years, about 120 NEROs have formed on Vashon, according to Vicky DeMonterey Richoux, a VashonBePrepared board member who recently took over the NERO program from Joe Ulatoski. She said NEROs typically include five to 15 households that meet at least once a year to get to know each other and determine how they might check on one another and work together during a large storm, earthquake or other emergency. They also designate one or more people who will be responsible for reporting to emergency responders on the status of their neighborhood during a major disaster.

“We’re trying to make a big push this year to get them comfortable with the reporting up part,” she said.

Islanders at Spring Beach recently combined their new NERO with a new block watch effort. Richards, who lives at Spring Beach, said many there have been concerned about suspected drug activity at the south-end neighborhood and wanted to be “proactive instead of reactive.”

As winter is approaching, it seemed natural for a block watch program to go hand-in-hand with an emergency preparedness program. Recent meetings have included briefings from deputies about crime in the area and what to do if they see suspicious activity, as well as talks about creating emergency kits and treating contaminated drinking water.

“By combining them, we get them thinking about the total package of having a safe neighborhood and watching out for each other,” Richards said, adding that crime is a top concern for many islanders and can bring people to a meeting that they might not otherwise attend. Before ;ast Friday’s meeting, she said she expected about three-quarters of her neighborhood would attend that night.

“The interesting thing is when you talk about crime, everyone is very interested,” she said. “When you talk about being prepared for a natural disaster or some kind of emergency, people tend to say ‘I’ll deal with that later.’”

Not dealing with it later has been the mantra for VashonBePrepared, which routinely urges islanders to consider what they will do should a storm or other emergency hit the island.

Wallace said the VashonBePrepared board is currently determining what its public awareness approach will be this winter, but he frequently advises islanders do three things to prepare: have 10 days of food, water and medication on hand, know how to get emergency information and keep an emergency kit in the car.

“If you don’t want to be really uncomfortable, don’t hit the snooze alarm,” he said. “Listen to the wake-up call.”

For more information on VoV’s emergency alert team, email

To see PSE’s new outage map, visit and click Power Outages.

For more information about preparing for storms and other emergencies, see