by Ben Adlin
After working for more than 30 years for Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, Ron Angeles understood the importance of community ties. But he worked in West Seattle while living in Rainier Beach, and after retiring, he wanted to get to know his neighbors.
The first thing that came to mind was the Seattle Police Department’s Block Watch program, under which residents are supposed to alert law enforcement to suspicious activity. “I wanted to do something a little bit more positive,” Angeles said. “Block Watch — you know, crime — it’s kind of negative.”
So he got in touch with Cindi Barker, a West Seattle–based emergency preparedness organizer he knew from his old job, and launched an emergency communications hub instead.
Angeles is the captain of the Rainier Beach Ready Hub, which he started in 2012. It’s the southernmost organized emergency hub in Seattle and one of the most distant from its neighboring hubs. It was the first of its kind formed in southeast Seattle.
Angeles’ message is simple. “The best disaster preparedness is knowing your neighbors,” he said. “If you want to do something for your community, volunteer for the emergency communication hub.”
Across Seattle, a patchwork of volunteers have been working to prepare their communities for the worst. In the event of a major earthquake or other disaster, they’re ready to spring into action by setting up central neighborhood meeting points to share vital information and pool resources for mutual aid.
Organizers say it’s an essential step in ensuring the resiliency of neighborhoods following a major emergency, when first responders will be overwhelmed and communities will be largely on their own.
“In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, your neighbor is going to be your first responder,” said Kate Hutton, the communications coordinator for the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, which supports the volunteer-led efforts through its Community Emergency Hubs program. Local agencies will be scrambling to clear roadways, put out fires, launch search-and-rescue efforts, and fix power and internet outages, she says. “The hubs kind of fill those gaps until we can get those things restored.”
The primary purpose of the hubs is to allow neighbors to check in with one another after a disaster; for example, to report nearby hazardous conditions, seek emotional support, or share extra supplies. They’re not government aid stations or shelter sites but rather places to relay information and plan next steps.
While Seattle officials technically recognize 143 emergency hub locations across the City, most are still theoretical. There might be a planned meeting point — a local park or P-Patch, for example — but so far, no volunteers have stepped up to take the lead. That’s especially true in southeast Seattle, where only about a third of hubs have designated captains.
You can find your nearest hub at the Seattle Emergency Hubs website, which has a map of hub locations across the city. Hubs represented by filled circles have designated hub captains, while unfilled icons are still looking for volunteers. The website also has information about how to start your own hub.
Unlike highly specialized relief efforts, like search and rescue, getting involved in an emergency hub is relatively easy. Virtually any volunteer, with any skill set, can contribute to the cause.
In the event of an emergency, Angeles explains, he and other volunteers will first ensure their families are safe and then make their way to the emergency hub, which in Rainier Beach’s case is located at the Rainier Beach Community Club. Once there, they’ll greet neighbors as they arrive, coordinate volunteers, erect a bulletin board to relay important messages, and share updates received by radio from the City’s Office of Emergency Management.
The Rainier Beach Hub is equipped with a gas generator — a replacement after the first was stolen — as well as a solar panel to charge electronic devices and a printer to copy and distribute messages. Some basic first-aid and water-treatment supplies are also on hand, though the hubs aren’t intended to provide extensive relief services.
“Walk up to the hub, and there would be a volunteer, hopefully, that would greet you,” Angeles said, explaining how a hub might function after a disaster. People would be asked whether they need help or have supplies or expertise to offer, and then directed to other volunteers for further coordination.
As more neighbors showed up, the hub could grow into a clearinghouse for information and supplies. “If you have doctors or nurses who are part of your hub, you might be able to set up first-aid stations,” Angeles said.
Hub captains and regular volunteers also participate in both volunteer- and City-led education programs and field training, designed to give them not only the basic skills to respond in an emergency but also the confidence to put those skills into action.
Part of what makes the hubs so flexible, Angeles says, is that they’re designed to allow just about anyone to contribute. “People could just show up on the spot,” he said. “Just show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to help!’”
Just a few regular volunteers can handle the hub, managing additional volunteers as they arrive. Rainier Beach has about a half-dozen regulars, Angeles says, including a couple of retired military veterans and some youth volunteers.
While he’s hoping to attract more members — “We’re all volunteers, and we’re very tired,” he added — his bigger goal is building more community hubs across South Seattle.
“They’re quite well-organized up in northeast Seattle, Lake City,” Angeles said. “There’s real sophisticated hubs up there. You get to one of their drills, and you’ll see multiple tents, OK? You’re lucky if you see two or three at ours.”
He attributes part of the disparity to language barriers, acknowledging that he himself only speaks English and isn’t able to translate certain materials or reach out to nearby communities in their own languages. While Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management provides some preparedness information in a dozen languages, individual hubs sometimes lack the volunteers or resources needed to translate their own outreach and messaging.
Angeles also wants to encourage more People of Color to form hubs in the South End. He recently connected with the Rainier Beach Action Coalition as part of his effort to get to know his neighbors and inspire other would-be hub captains. A few members of the coalition’s SE Seattle FreedomNet youth leadership and journalism program volunteered at a recent training event, and he’s hoping they’ll help seed other hubs in the neighborhood.
“You create community,” he said. “That’s how you sustain any of this stuff that you do. It’s just, you know, getting to know faces and building trust.”
One of the next hubs in southeast Seattle was the Daejeon Park Hub in North Beacon Hill. Susan Sanders, who started the hub about five years ago and serves as hub captain, has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades and helped establish the park she lives across the street from.
“Every time I would have a thought about emergency preparation and earthquakes, I’d get really nervous,” she said. “I went to the City website and realized that the South End in particular, and South and Central Seattle, are really like a wasteland as far as emergency preparation infrastructure.”
“There are not enough emergency hubs compared to the North End,” she added. “What are people going to do if there’s an earthquake, you know?”
While Sanders says she’s aware of some private mutual aid organizations that are concerned with preparedness, she points out that emergency hubs receive support — and some funding — from the City.
Like many of the hubs, the Daejon Park Hub received a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods that paid for a box of basic supplies, which is stored near the hub location. The City also offers a variety of emergency preparedness training programs, available to not only emergency hubs but also many other community groups.
“What we really want to encourage people to do is organize emergency hubs in their immediate neighborhoods, because that’s what’s going to be most effective,” Sanders said. “Other people don’t have these hub sites, so I don’t know what they’re going to do. Come to ours? You know, it could be overloaded. It’s really hard to tell.”
She said that while City officials have tried to expand outreach to South End communities in recent years, “People have just so much on their plates.” She’s had luck connecting with local churches; for example, Beacon United Methodist Church, which she said has been “really involved” in the hub despite many of the church’s members having been displaced from the neighborhood through gentrification.
All the hub captains in southeast Seattle who spoke with the Emerald said they were particularly inspired by Cindi Barker, the preparedness advocate whose work in West Seattle was a model for the City’s own emergency hub program. Barker, who leads both the Seattle Emergency Hubs network and the local West Seattle Be Prepared emergency hub, focused her attention on regional preparedness after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.
Barker, whose partner, Ron, was a King County Search and Rescue volunteer at the time, asked local authorities what their plan was to support West Seattle in the event of a large-scale quake. “We had a fantastic operations guy, and he was like, ‘No, no, no, you got this all wrong. Your community’s gonna depend on you guys,’” Barker said.
In the following years, the region was rocked by windstorms that downed power lines and killed more than a dozen people. Parts of West Seattle were without power for almost two weeks, and Barker says she noticed that common areas had become meeting places for neighbors to share valuable information.
“That was the big aha,” she said. “People are going to want to gather. They’re social animals, they want to help. Let’s give them a place where they can gather to meet.”
Over the next several years, more and more hubs came online. Barker focused mostly on South Seattle, while another organizer, Ann Forrest, coordinated North Seattle.
Barker acknowledges that while hub volunteers still trend older and whiter than Seattle itself, she’s seen Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management make real efforts at expanding involvement. “Over the past five years, I would see them shift from the general population to targeted, multilingual, multicultural, vulnerable-population type stuff,” she said. “They do training on request, and they have some translated material, which we steal.”
For real-time communication in an emergency, the hubs rely on radio. They work with another volunteer group, the Seattle Auxiliary Communications Service (Seattle ACS), which uses licensed amateur radio operators to carry messages between communities and the City’s central Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
“In a disaster, we would have members deployed to the EOC but also through Seattle,” explained Catherine Middleton-Hardie, deputy director for Seattle ACS. After a 2016 practice exercise, dubbed Cascadia Rising, which explored the region’s preparedness for a major earthquake, she said, “One of the major findings was that jurisdictions needed to utilize the amateur radio community more.”
While Seattle ACS has other responsibilities to aid City response efforts, Middleton-Hardie describes the neighborhood emergency hubs as “our community connection point.” Hubs can help relay messages to community members — for example, about available shelters, clinics, or food aid — while also helping send on-the-ground details back to officials overseeing the regional response.
“Roads will start being cleared, power will hopefully start being restored,” she said, “but there’s a time lag when things are chaotic and neighborhoods are on their own, and information is important for planning the response.”
One of the more recent South End emergency hubs is the Lakewood Seward Park Emergency Communications Hub. Linda Norlen, the hub’s captain, assumed the role in 2019 after what she calls “kind of a dormant stage” in the group’s activity.
Recruiting has been a key part of rebuilding the group, Norlen says. For example, volunteers are going through public listings of licensed amateur radio operators to make sure someone at the hub is qualified to handle communications.
At the same time, she emphasizes that everyone in the community has valuable skills to contribute. “I don’t want people to get the idea that they have to have some super-technical training to become a volunteer,” she said. “Quite the contrary.”
One crucial role could simply be to help neighbors begin to process what happened. Homes will be damaged, and loved ones may be missing. “There’s going to be a lot of distressed people there,” said Norlen, “and we think that there’s going to be a really strong role for people to be on hand whose job it is simply to be with those people, talk to them, comfort them.”
As the neighborhood emergency hub program matures, Norlen says, it’s important to ensure all nearby communities are aware of the organizing efforts. She’d also like to engage younger and more diverse volunteers.
“We’ve trained ourselves to know about the basics of the hub and how it operates and stuff,” Norlen said, “but we’re still finding our way and how to communicate that to the wider community.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Linda Norlen in some instances. The Emerald regrets the error.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Ron Angeles, captain of the Rainier Beach Ready Hub, stands at the emergency hub site near 61st Avenue South near Water Avenue South, where neighbors can rally and support one another when disaster strikes. (Photo: Phil Manzano)
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