The weakest link in emergency preparedness? You and me

Whenever weather reports indicate a major storm is headed this way, Michael Cochrane says he sees a phenomenon that troubles him greatly — scores of Islanders flocking to stores to buy candles, batteries, canned food and other emergency supplies.

Whenever weather reports indicate a major storm is headed this way, Michael Cochrane says he sees a phenomenon that troubles him greatly — scores of Islanders flocking to stores to buy candles, batteries, canned food and other emergency supplies.

That tells Cochrane, a leading figure in Vashon’s emergency preparedness community, that many residents are not ready for what he believes is inevitable — a disaster that hits without warning.

“How do I know we’re not prepared? Every time there’s portent of a big storm, people are buying supplies at the 11th hour and 59th minute,” Cochrane said.

That lack of individual readiness, he added, “is our biggest area of vulnerability.”

It’s been a little more than a decade since Islanders interested in emergency preparedness embarked on a serious effort to ensure this relatively isolated, ferry-dependent community could take care of itself in a major disaster. And it’s been six years since the Island got a taste of how a weather-related disaster might play out on Vashon — the December 2006 windstorm that brought down scores of trees, darkened the entire Island for days and left some Islanders without power for two weeks.

long way on Vashon, and those who have toiled in the trenches believe they’ve made significant strides.

Were a disaster to hit tomorrow, a fully staffed Emergency Operations Center (EOC) — headed by Fire Chief Hank Lipe — would spring into action at the fire station. Community Emergency Response Teams — some 40 people on Vashon who are trained in first-sid, search and rescue, communications and more — would report to duty. A new generator would power Thriftway, ensuring the entire store was fully operational; Williams Heating could pump gas thanks to its new generator; Fair Isle Veterinarian Clinic is also equipped to keep its doors open.

If needed, a shelter — filled with 550 cots — would be set up at one of the public schools. Ham radio operators would take to their stations, ensuring some degree of communication among emergency responders. Voice of Vashon, equipped with enough radio towers to cover nearly the entire Island, would issue dispatches via its emergency broadcast band.

Vashon still has work to do on its isolation plan, “Operation Lifeline,” a detailed blueprint for a response to the kind of regionwide emergency that would leave Vashon on its own for several days. Those in the field of emergency preparedness say such an eventuality is not only their biggest challenge, but a likely scenario one of these days.

“That’s what gives us a sense of urgency — that we’re an island. … In any regional disaster, Vashon stands alone,” said Joe Ulatoski, a retired brigadier general who founded the organization that ultimately became VashonBePrepared, the volunteer organization that now leads Vashon’s readiness effort.

“When the feds come in, they’re going to say, ‘Where can we do the most good?’ … They’re going to look at critical infrastructure first — hospitals, electricity. … We don’t have critical infrastructure, so they’re not going to be focused on us,” he said.

Gripped by this sense of urgency, readiness experts say they’ve worked hard over the years, and they’re pleased by how far they’ve come in the past six years, since that devastating winter storm. “On the official level, things have progressed very well,” Ulatoski said.

Still, the Island is not fully prepared, experts say. And the biggest cause for concern is the lack of individual readiness — families, couples and individuals who haven’t taken the time or seen the need to get themselves equipped for the worst.

VashonBePrepared undertook a survey in 2009, garnering responses from 20 percent of the Island’s 10,000 residents. Of those, 90 percent said they had enough food and water to last three days, while only 30 percent said they could manage for seven days, said Rick Wallace, who heads VashonBePrepared.

“That’s our challenge,” he said. “It’s incredibly difficult to motivate people about a ‘maybe.’”

The need, however, is great, Wallace and Ulatoski said. In a serious emergency, responders will need to focus on attending to those who are injured, addressing infrastructure problems, establishing a connection between the Island and the mainland — life and death matters they’re training to address and practicing in regular drills.

But if people aren’t prepared, situations that might not be life-threatening suddenly take on a new magnitude, Ulatoski and Wallace said, and responders could easily find themselves overwhelmed by Islanders’ many needs.

“Every person who makes himself resilient and sustainable takes somebody off the list of somebody we have to care for,” Wallace said.

Ulatoski has been at the forefront of an effort to address the problem of individual readiness, spearheading the establishment of Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations, or NEROs, on Vashon. Islanders who organize a NERO are expected to develop an informal plan to assess damage and ensure everyone in their neighborhood is checked on in the aftermath of a disaster, reporting that information to the EOC; they also encourage individual readiness.

Over the last few years, Ulatoski said, Islanders in 115 neighborhoods have contacted him, expressing interest in organizing a NERO. It’s an impressive number, he said, except that some never got off the ground and others fell apart over time.

He recently attended an organizing meeting for a new NERO at Sylvan Beach, to have only one person — the woman who contacted him — show up. He ran into another woman who attempted to organize a NERO. When he asked her how it was going, she replied, “Oh, I’ve given up on that. … I’m involved in other things,” Ulatoski said.

Even those Islanders who take readiness seriously could find themselves ill-prepared in the event of an emergency, Ulatoski added, since preparedness requires ongoing attention. Stored water needs to be replenished. Food needs to be restocked. Emergency kits sometimes get raided over time for other household needs.

Bob Smueles, who’s working with VashonBePrepared in trying to get the word out to Islanders, notes that even he is not as prepared as he could be. “I could easily withstand a power outage for a week. But could I withstand my house crumbling? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s all relative.”

But even at that, he knows many Islanders haven’t under taken basic readiness steps— emergency plans that they’ve discussed with their children, stored food, water and batteries, the identification of a back-up source of heat.

“The concept of getting your household prepared … usually involves having to do something outside of your normal daily routine. And that’s hard to do,” he said.

Smueles has been working with Erin Durrett, Rich Farner and Jeromy Sander on an outreach campaign over the past several months; their “are you ready” posters have popped up all over the Island. But asked if it’s working, he shrugged.

“It’s really hard to tell. … The whole thing is an experiment,” he said. “We really don’t know what will motivate people.”

Ulatoski, who has poured countless hours into Vashon’s readiness efforts, said he believes most Islanders could withstand the discomfort and inconvenience of a bad storm. But he continues to worry about what he calls a true disaster — an earthquake that cuts us off from the mainland for days.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “people just don’t take it seriously.”