Are we really ready for a big disaster?

Commentary: Seattle has begun working in smart ways on making its neighborhoods more ready to deal with the first few days after a major catastrophe.
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Damage from the Nisqually Quake of 2001.

Commentary: Seattle has begun working in smart ways on making its neighborhoods more ready to deal with the first few days after a major catastrophe.

When we hear “first responders” we think of firefighters and police officers. Take a closer look through the filter of any major disaster, though, and the first to respond are actually those who are in closest proximity: neighbors and passers-by. Whether the landslide in Oso, Hurricane Sandy, or a local house fire, time and again neighbors are the first on the scene.

But are our neighbors ready for an emergency? The American Red Cross tells us to have an emergency kit ready so we can survive without services for three days, but what happens after that? And what happens if you need medical attention or can’t find your cat?

After the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, West Seattle’s 13 community groups became concerned about the peninsula’s isolation and limited access to immediate emergency services. They spoke with police and fire leaders and discovered that, although those departments had internal operational plans, there was no plan in place to support citizens in the immediate aftermath of a civil or natural disaster. In fact, their initial responsibility was to travel through the affected areas and assess the damage without stopping to help, except in life-threatening situations. Only after a completed assessment would they be available to provide services.

Five years later, the Hanukkah eve windstorm knocked out power in our entire region, in some cases for more than a week. People wanted to know: How widespread was the outage; when would power be restored in their neighborhood; where could they get cash from an ATM; were any restaurants open; who had cell service? Those who could, turned to local resources like, but with electricity out and cell towers inoperable few had access to the information being provided. The City had supported block-level organizing, but nothing was in place to knit neighborhoods together.

After the storm, a West Seattle group formed to address the issue of immediate disaster response. They wanted to create something that would be local, neighborhood based and flexible and would serve as an information center immediately after a large-scale disaster. They designed and, over time, implemented a disaster information hub system for West Seattle. As word spread about the hub concept, the City of Seattle brought together organizers from West Seattle, Queen Anne, Wallingford and later Capitol Hill to work together and support one another in expanding it. With one-time funding from the City Council and other small grants, the all-volunteer Emergency Preparedness Hub Network has grown citywide and now includes 56 total hubs, including 19 at P-patch locations.

Each hub is created and staffed by volunteers. It is hosted in a neighborhood-based, easily accessible location. The hub’s organizing mission is to provide information in the gap between the onset of a civil disaster and the time official first responders can take over. The volunteer core team of hub captain and two to six others coordinates the work of each hub. In preparation for any disaster, they conduct surveys of their service area to determine where potential resources can be found and implemented. Local organizations and businesses are asked if they have the capacity to provide shelter, water, refrigeration, power generation, as well as other services or equipment that they are willing to commit in a crisis.

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City of Seattle. For a large PDF version, click here.

When disaster strikes, each hub will operate autonomously but will be able to communicate with other hubs, social service, and city agencies via ground mobile radio service. This service requires an FCC license and enables two-way communication over short distances, somewhat like Citizens’ Band (CB).

Hubs will know where local shelters are, where food or water is available, where medical services are being provided, or where to report missing persons. Each hub will also serve as a conduit for resource or skill sharing. Volunteers can go to a hub and be matched with ongoing projects (e.g. removing debris, traffic management, or resource logging) or to report available resources (e.g. “my house has electricity and can be used as a charging station for electronics,” “I have a snow blower,” or “I’m grilling in my backyard for anyone who wants to come by”).

The hubs are holding drills several times a year and they use those as opportunities to test their policies and procedures as well as educate their neighbors. Once or twice a year they hold an Emergency Preparedness Summit with Block Watch captains, teams from Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare (SNAP), FEMA’s local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and FEMA’s incident command. The summit allows these organizations to exchange information, share new technologies and establish relationships before they’re needed in a crisis.

The biggest challenge faced by the network is getting the word out to as many people as possible. Though the network does have general outreach materials, each hub also produces a neighborhood-specific outreach plan and related materials, primarily because each has it’s own focus for a potential disaster. For example the Shilshole Hub covers a lot of live-aboard people, so their materials focus on emergency response within a marine context, while Queen Anne can be shut down by ice storms. The hubs have used tables at summer festivals, as well as presentations to civic and social organizations to get the message out. So far they have had over 200 people involved in drills. The West Seattle Be Prepared Facebook page has over 500 followers. Readers of this article can help to spread the word by sharing it via social media.

There are still areas where hubs need to be developed, most notably Belltown, Downtown, South Lake Union and Eastlake. These areas have been hard to organize because of largely high-rise neighborhoods with little existing community infrastructure. And yes, the network wants more volunteers.

More information about hubs, including contact information, is available here on the City of Seattle's website. The Hub network recently began a weekly, live cast podcast via Google hangouts and IRC Chat at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays. The podcast is subsequently posted to a YouTube channel. (Details and access to the podcast are also available at

Are we ready? More so than we once were but there's more for us to do to prepare to be our own first-responders.

Information for this article was provided by Cindi Barker (West Seattle Emergency Preparedness Hub Network) and the city's community preparedness site. .


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About the Authors & Contributors

Lola E. Peters

Lola E. Peters

Lola E. Peters is a contributing columnist covering politics, culture and social justice.