Nobody wants to think about what else could happen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, how an earthquake, large fire or landslide could leave island families without food or shelter, with few resources to go around for the 11,000 residents living on Vashon.
“Everybody imagines that with an earthquake, the big problem would be taking care of rescues and immediately trying to get injured people to hospitals, that sort of emergency response,” said Rick Wallace, the vice president of Vashon Be Prepared. “But the enormous challenge would be the second emergency, which is — just like the pandemic — taking care of our community.”
Wildfire smoke from Oregon still hanging over the Puget Sound region — a health emergency in its own right— at press time is the latest reminder that Vashon, with limited health care and solely reliant on ferries to reach the mainland, is not invulnerable from larger forces of nature and potential natural disasters. And the threat of such an event striking at an already sensitive time is as real as ever. Meanwhile, though many islanders have gone back to work since the onset of Gov. Inslee’s stay-at-home order, almost 600 still remain unemployed, and questions over basic necessities such as food security and housing loom large for those who aren’t in any position to grapple with the impacts of another emergency.
Wallace said that it’s not possible to devise a prescriptive plan for every emergency scenario that will be perennially helpful to trained volunteers and emergency workers, because every situation is different.
“Good emergency management means that you apply basic principles to solving the problems [that arise],” he said. “We trained for years and years on what to do about an earthquake or a landslide or, you know, some other serious natural disaster, and we got a pandemic.”
The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activated in March and has been busy ever since, responding to the pandemic with the mission of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the community, in collaboration with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR). But Wallace said the team realized there was more at stake than just keeping people healthy: a simultaneous crisis was emerging, as the pandemic brought devastating social and economic consequences with it. Vashon’s older population found themselves isolated at home. Significant job and business loss took off as schools were ordered closed.
Wallace said everything VashonBePrepared volunteers drill for each month, and have learned over the years, have helped guide their approach to the island’s competing needs during the pandemic, from health and safety to food accessibility, shelter and economic recovery. A reserve has been set aside to ensure that islanders who lack health insurance are able to get tested for the virus locally. The Medical Reserve Corps of the EOC now test an average of around 55 people each week (editor’s note: see this week’s COVID-19 Pandemic Situation Report on page 8 of this issue for more information.) A $325,000 relief fund created through private donations has meant that the organization could purchase more than 12,000 meals and 1,700 bags of groceries, delivering many of them to homes and neighborhoods, and provide direct assistance to families in the form of rent relief and other help. Some costs — the largest are food and shelter — are reimbursable through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the fund is running out.
The EOC has also partnered with the island’s existing social service providers and the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce to strengthen the community’s existing networks of support. Doing so, Wallace said, sets resilience in motion that will be critical later for recovery after an emergency situation.
“It’s been hugely important that the social service agencies on the island and our business community come out of this,” Wallace said. “If you think about something bad happening on top of the pandemic, those people are the ones we’re going to need. Think about trying to respond to a really bad natural disaster without a lumberyard, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a bank. All of those things, the school district, these are all fundamental to our community’s ability to be resilient, and resilience is the name of the game when you have a really bad day.”
Rehearsing for disaster
Come what may, Vicky de Monterey Richoux, VashonBePrepared president, said that from her perspective, the group’s monthly emergency response drills, including the regional Cascadia Rising earthquake disaster drill conducted in 2016, have been a tremendous asset in preparation for other disasters, even with focus now simultaneously on the pandemic.
“Having the Incident Command System structure understood, having folks trained in that system, and understanding their role to a great extent, and also having the key relationships with each other and with people outside our group, has been a huge boon to hitting the ground running,” she said.
But it’s an impossibly tall order for even the most seasoned personnel of a disaster response agency to handle multiple catastrophes at once.
People should think ahead of time about bolstering their own supplies and whether they can imagine themselves living independently off the power grid during an outage, or with communication or Internet access down, de Monterey Richoux said. Moreover, the existing ties binding neighborhoods on the island relate themselves well to overall readiness. Studies have shown that neighbors are the ones that help each other in the first three days after disruptive incidents because first responders are overwhelmed.
“Mutual aid is a huge part of a community like Vashon. It’s perfect for mutual aid types of experiences, where folks get to know their neighbors well enough to trust them and recognize them by face and calling each other for help when things get tough,” she said.
As the nation watches devastating fires burn out of control up and down the west coast and in the Pacific Northwest seemingly every year, de Monterey Richoux said more islanders are asking where they should go if the island were to experience a wildfire. It’s a grim possibility. While there haven’t been any significant working fires on the island this season, the fire danger has been set to high on Vashon, and last week, King County Fire Marshal Chris Ricketts issued a Stage 2 burn ban for the county, which prohibits all outdoor recreational fires, after the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag fire danger warning for Northwest Washington.
Islander Derek Churchill, a forest health scientist with the WA Department of Natural Resources, told The Beachcomber that the high winds last Tuesday that knocked down branches and power lines on the island concerned him enough about the potential that they could fan an ignition and cause a wildfire event on Vashon. But he emphasized the likelihood for wildfires on Vashon is not as great as it is where devastating blazes are burning, due to different wind patterns and conditions on the ground there. Even if there is an ignition source that causes a fire on the island, without strong easterly winds, fire crews should have no problem extinguishing the blaze, he said.
But looking ahead, no one can rightly predict whether climate change will increase the frequency of wildfire events in western Washington.
“That’s really the big question,” he said. “And to be honest, we know climate change is going to make things warmer and drier. We don’t know if climate change is going to increase the frequency of these wind events.”
Ready or not
How do people move safely away from danger should they need to? De Monterey Richoux said that last year, VashonBePrepared and VIFR began to consider how they might address a wildfire emergency occurring on the island. Sheriff’s deputies and VIRF first responders would be needed to coordinate an evacuation if necessary and to direct the response to protect life and property.
If a fire blocked off an area such as the Gold Beach neighborhood, for example, marine assistance may be able to clear a path for residents, and fire crews from off-island could be brought in to help knock the flames back, de Monterey Richoux said, such as when several companies were brought over to help after a propane vapor explosion occurred at Vashon Energy in 2016.
Personal preparedness is one of the best courses of action islanders can take to be ready, de Monterey Richoux said, as is staying in communication with family members, and following an order to evacuate if one is ever given.
Staying up-to-date with emergency alerts is also recommended. More information is available online at voiceofvashon.org/alerts.
For VIFR Fire Chief and EOC Incident Commander Charlie Krimmert, there is a lot to appreciate about how Vashon has come together to get a handle on the coronavirus. He noted how volunteers at the EOC have logged over 14,000 hours of support given to operations committing resources to VashonBePrepared’s priorities. The low infection rate on Vashon compared to the rest of the county — currently at one-seventh the rate of King County as a whole — is fortunate, Krimmert added.
But in his view, working with the county could be easier, namely getting needed supplies out to Vashon when they are available. To that end, Krimmert said they are working to improve communication and supply lines between the island and county agencies such as the Department of Local Services. Krimmert said they’re working out an idea involving the Roads Division where trucks already headed to the island could carry over supplies if road crews are on their way.
Any aid from the county can help get the island back on its feet more quickly than without, but if the ground starts to shake and Vashon should find itself cut off from the mainland, islanders will either be ready for whatever could happen next, or they won’t, Krimmert said.
“I think we’ve kind of got two extremes on the island… There’s no real middle of the road. And so hopefully, we’ll find out when everything breaks which [one] we are, if we’re all ready or not.”