Monday, March 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ready for disaster? Not yet

Seattle Times staff reporter


Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams: 206-233-7123 or

Disaster officials say it's tough to persuade middle-class neighborhoods to prepare for earthquakes and other calamities, so consider the challenges of organizing the Tri Court public-housing units in North Seattle.

The 90 people who call Tri Court home are low-income, and many suffer from physical and emotional disabilities. They haven't held a fire drill in years, and even simple disruptions can have serious effects: A power outage last October froze the electric locks and people couldn't get into their apartments. Elevators didn't work, stranding anyone in a wheelchair.

So when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August, inflicting the heaviest toll on those who didn't or couldn't evacuate, a handful of Tri Court dwellers started to get nervous.

"I watched quite a bit of that," said Anthony Cameron, a retired bus driver and president of the residents council. "I noticed that the people left behind were exactly what we have here. They'd be victims."

But as the folks at Tri Court discovered, preparing for disaster is not an easy thing. They and others across the city who are trying to form neighborhood disaster-preparedness teams complain that the city of Seattle has been slow and disorganized in responding to requests for assistance.

About 134 groups are on a waiting list for preparedness training.

Director of Emergency Management Barb Graff said interest generated by the hurricane caught her department "woefully under-resourced," but the city is ramping up. It recently hired a public-education coordinator, and Graff hopes to have two additional full-time employees on board by summer.

Seven months after Katrina sent a wake-up call across the country, the city of Seattle's disaster response remains a work in progress.

The centerpiece of the city's emergency plan is the Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Team (SDART) program, which helps train neighborhood groups to turn off natural-gas lines, administer first aid, and make sure older residents get their medications in the event of disaster, most likely a catastrophic earthquake.

During a major disaster, people would be told to stay put and wait for police and firefighters, who might not arrive for a week or more. Self-sufficiency could mean the difference between life and death.

City officials say there are about 459 citizen-disaster teams in the city. Neighborhoods north of the Ship Canal — including Wedgwood, Ravenna and View Ridge — have the vast majority of the teams. Some less-affluent neighborhoods have none.

The reason is simple: City officials organize neighborhoods that request assistance, and most queries come from higher-income areas.

But that changed after Katrina, especially for the people at Tri Court, in the Bitter Lake area.

A personal priority

Although folks there "ooze apathy," said resident Mary Jo Cetak, she made forming a disaster team a personal priority.

The hurdles are many. Simple things like turning off gas lines are complicated by the fact that the Tri Court manager doesn't live there. Only Cameron has a wrench, and if he wasn't home during an earthquake, fires could consume the buildings. People can't afford to stockpile medications or keep extra food and water available.

As she sought to drum up interest in forming a Tri Court disaster team, Cetak said, the city was very helpful, promising to coordinate five meetings. But then the Emergency Department changed policy and said it was sending staff members to only two meetings. After that, the teams were on their own. At the same time, police block-watch coordinators were instructed to no longer participate in disaster preparedness and instead to focus exclusively on crime prevention.

"They said all we have to do was plug in, then they changed the plugs," Cetak said.

Nonetheless, just getting people to the first meeting was a major accomplishment.

To entice participation, Cetak gave out 30 green lightsticks and raffle tickets for a battery-less flashlight, purchased with a $250 grant to Tri Court from the city's Department of Neighborhoods. Twenty-three residents showed up on March 9 to hear a lecture about preparedness and receive a workbook.

Cetak is organizing monthly meetings until August, when she hopes the group will be ready to survive a catastrophe. Instead of buying crates of water, canned food and first-aid kits all at once, Cetak advises people to put the items on birthday and Christmas gift lists, and build up slowly. She is also contacting local hardware stores about donations.

"It's a start," Cetak said. "If we call this a finished product, we're a failure. We're going to be progressing."

Volunteers pitch in

Tri Court wasn't the only neighborhood to organize.

Boyd Pickrell said about 20 people showed up to form a disaster team a few months ago in Hillman City, a neighborhood just east of Seward Park in southeast Seattle.

City statistics indicate that Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill have the lowest participation in the SDART program, so the group was breaking new ground.

But it's now up to residents to put together personal survival kits and identify the neighborhood's vulnerable people and infrastructure, said Pickrell, who helped organize the meeting. They've given themselves a deadline of next month to compile their own disaster kits.

The city hasn't worked out how it will determine which disaster teams are active and which disbanded from lack of interest. Pickrell said a follow-up call from the emergency department would help ascertain the status of each group and prompt further action.

"This program is only going to work if driven by the residents, but a taskmaster might be enough to spurn the next meeting," he said.

To Jennifer Mackley, the city still doesn't do enough to encourage disaster teams in low-income, immigrant communities.

Mackley's Mormon faith calls on her to keep a packed suitcase, extra medicines and survival gear handy for emergencies. After Katrina, she said, she realized that Mormons live throughout the community, and that their neighbors also needed to be prepared, regardless of religion.

On her own, Mackley, an attorney, has spent thousands of dollars printing information in different languages to distribute at preparedness meetings she arranged in West Seattle, White Center, Burien, Normandy Park and Vashon Island. The lectures are given by city and fire officials, who urge people to organize their neighborhoods into SDART teams.

Twenty people signed up to create teams after a January meeting at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gymnasium in West Seattle.

JoAnn Jordan, public-education coordinator for the city Office of Emergency Management, commended Mackley's dedication to spreading the preparedness message to diverse communities: "I was very impressed with her efforts. That's an audience we do need to reach."

To Mackley, it's simply what people are supposed to do for each other.

"The philosophy is, it shouldn't be a doomsday thing, just a part of your everyday life," Mackley said. "If you do some simple things, you will have presence of mind."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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