In these times of incessant bad news across the airwaves, I’m keen to hear creative responses to this world gone awry. A delightful story recently reached me, describing a small neighborhood effort that led to a city-wide program for people to gather in communities, bringing their knowledge, skills, resources, and desires to be of service.
It was December 2006, when a mighty winter storm tore through Washington with severe winds, rain and falling trees producing a hard-hit power grid. Some counties were impacted more severely than others, but nearly everyone in the Seattle area experienced loss of electricity, blocked roads, schools, businesses and airport closures. In West Seattle, as the days moved beyond a week without power, a group of neighbors found each other on corners in search of who had a way to make coffee, what restaurant was serving warm food, where people could find safe indoor heating. Sometimes a warm shower was offered, always information was the important commodity: who knew what to help another person.
After power was restored, multiple community groups within West Seattle started to lay out a way to capture that “working together” experience on a broader level, and seven neighborhoods decided to establish those “connecting on street corner” locations in advance of the next disaster. They picked places where people naturally would gather, like in parks or near business districts, thus seeding the concept of having a pre-identified Emergency Hub location for neighborhoods to gather for information and mutual aid.
As they considered how to organize and practice at those locations, the Seattle Office of Emergency Management was a resource for them to learn how the city was approaching emergency response planning. One of the staff at the OEM also knew of two additional volunteer neighborhood efforts organizing in Magnolia and Wallingford. He brought them together for further learning about emergency planning and response efforts. Ultimately, they presented a briefing to the City Council which led to some initial start-up funds to buy equipment for designated neighborhood Emergency Hubs. Fast forward to today, and OEM counts 135 designated Emergency Hubs areas across the city, with over 60 of these actively engaged with volunteer neighbors continuing to enhance preparation with skills, protocols, drills and donations of essential equipment to have when communication and power networks go down, and neighbors will need to go into action to help each other.
Our Madison Park Emergency Hub
This story now shows up in our neighborhood when over decade ago, a core group of Madison Park citizens began launching an Emergency Hub located by the tennis courts in the park. A rotating group of volunteers has been steadily building our capacity to help neighbors support one another to prepare and respond to a devastating disaster. We’ve benefitted enormously from the support, skills and drills training of two remarkable city-wide volunteer leaders, Cindi Barker and Ann Forrest, who not only help neighborhood Hubs plan and host events, but coordinate a monthly online meeting for volunteer Hub coordinators to learn from each other and problem solve issues they are uncovering.
Last month, Forrest supported our adjacent neighborhood of Madison Valley as volunteers there launched an Emergency Hub location at the FAME Community Center on the corner of MLK and 32nd Ave East. She welcomed first time attendees eager to see what a Hub is about. Her simple standup chart outlined that Hubs are outdoor gathering spaces where neighbors help each other by sharing information, matching needs and resources, organizing volunteers, and some education efforts. Forrest acknowledged that while we all hope outside help will arrive to rescue us in an emergency, that might take longer than we think.
This is clearly what the December 2006 winter storm taught those West Seattle neighbors, stranded without power for over a week. And, challenging as that storm was, an expected devastating earthquake will leave us with even fewer resources we can count on. We have to be able to count on each other. Remember, city rescue efforts will be triaging myriad emergencies, and neighborhoods, especially ones situated like Madison Park, will be hard to get in and out of; we’ll basically be on our own for longer than we wish.
“So,” Forrest reminded us, “Our job is to prepare. And even if we have some neighborhood plans in place, when a destructive disaster suddenly arrives, most people’s brains will go south, and we’ll struggle to remember what to do. Neighborhood Hubs give folks a jumpstart by providing some structure and practice, and then we get creative. When people start arriving at the Hub site, they’ll see these neon-colored vests, and if you’ve practiced in a drill with us, you’ll be ready to wear one.”
Volunteers wearing those vests will be stationed at designated information tables or tents where they will try to match requests with resources. Cell phones will be undependable, and communications will be handled by relays between volunteers with two-way radios within and across neighborhoods. To prepare, Hubs hold periodic practice drills, some in the park where we “stand up” our supplies and systems, and some indoors, working at tables where we can more simply practice with role assignments and potential scenarios. We uncover kinks in our systems and improve them. We practice keeping calm and focused, learning how to shepherd folks to the station that can address their issue. As Forrest reminded us, “A Hub is a place to gather when all communications go down, and the people there are the help whether or not other help arrives. Supplies might come in, but no one is going to make us ‘whole’ again. That work will remain with the community and each impacted individual.”
As of September, our Madison Park Emergency Hub work will now integrate into the Public Safety committee of the recently formed Friends of Madison Park. In addition, we have a growing list of businesses partnering with us to offer in-kind services and goods, like refreshments for our meetings, printing our educational materials, and providing event spaces for our meetings and trainings. A big shoutout to Madison Park Bakery, McGilvras Restaurant, Parlour Wines, Starbucks, Parkshore Senior Living Community, the Hinds Team at Windermere Madison Park, Alaun McCray and the team at Mad Park RSR. When you visit them, please offer thanks for their role in supporting emergency preparation for Madison Park and pick up one of our Neighbors Helping Neighbors brochures.
Thanks to those individuals past and present who instinctively gravitate to the corners, not only in search of coffee, but in their community mindedness, and desire to be of service. Beyond the corner, you can email us to become involved: email@example.com.
You can learn more about the city-wide Hub work, trainings and resources: Emergency Preparedness, Disaster Awareness, Seattle Emergency Hubs.