One year after a winter storm buried Thurston County in a foot of snow and ice, officials still have not fixed flaws in the county emergency plan, which left dozens in the cold.
If another so-called Snowmageddon happened tomorrow, would the county be in the same situation?
“The answer is yes,” said Danny Kadden, director of Interfaith Works, a consortium of local faith communities that helped the Red Cross open an impromptu shelter for about 50 people at First Christian Church on the night of Jan. 19, 2012. Those same people were out on the street the next night, when the Red Cross moved the shelter to the McLane Fire Station because of unreliable power at the church. The fire station, in rural Thurston County, is 1.3 miles from the nearest bus line.
Last year’s event revealed flaws in the county’s response plan, including:
• The county relies on the Red Cross to open shelters and has no backup plan if the charity can’t. The local chapter of the Red Cross had difficulty opening shelters last year, with blocked roads and broken communications. Only two shelters were open at any one time in the county during the storm emergency.
• The county lacks shelter facilities with backup generators, but the Red Cross requires shelters it staffs to have power.
• The Red Cross focuses on sheltering people who are driven from their homes, not the chronically homeless, making them a lower priority in emergencies.
“Certain things that we assumed were in place, like the Red Cross, to name one, just was shockingly not prepared,” Kadden said.
“It’s about the community using its resources to provide for the need, not to depend on a well-known brand.”
Bottom line, says Kadden: the community needs a generator.
After the storm, a work group of county and faith and social service leaders that run local homeless shelters held a series of meetings to address the problems. But Kadden said the discussions have stalled.
The county hasn’t yet identified facilities for shelters, said Kathy Estes, Thurston County emergency manager. She hopes to change that by spring.
“There’s been a few things that have changed,” she said, “not as many as I’d like at this point.”
She said county officials are working to inventory possible shelters about the condition of the buildings, their seismic structure, disabled access and whether they’re generator-ready. But, Estes said, the county has had difficulty getting facilities to commit to being a shelter.
“That’s where I wish we’d made more progress at this point,” she said.
She said the county has asked local churches if they would be interested in a shelter partnership, but “we have not gotten a great response to that general question.”
Estes said the county can’t move forward on acquiring a generator or generators until it has identified the potential shelters. Generators could cost from $1,000 to many thousands of dollars.
She said the county is not trying to replace the Red Cross, but is discussing its role. Planners have divided the county into about 10 zones, she said, and are looking at finding two to three potential shelters per zone.
“We’ve looked really at the whole county including the cities,” she said.
Steve Finley, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross Mount Rainier Chapter, said the storm highlighted “a lot of gaps in the system, and that’s for everybody.”
He said the charity’s relationship with Thurston County remains the same, but its role is “probably being communicated better.” He reiterated that the Red Cross generally doesn’t open shelters where there is no power. It needs heat and bathrooms, amenities that will attract people from their cold, powerless homes. To do otherwise “doesn’t really make sense,” he said.
The usual challenge is getting a shelter open immediately, in the first two to 11 hours, he said.
“We can always do more,” he said. “Everybody’s busy. People are coming to the table to try to be a solution for the problem.”
Members of Interfaith Works and the social service community, who host a network of homeless shelters throughout the year, expressed frustration with the lack of progress. Kadden said volunteers in the faith community, with multiple commitments, are stretched thin and lack time and compensation to go to county meetings.
Interfaith Works churches rotate a women’s shelter during the cold-weather months, and St. Michael and Sacred Heart Catholic Churches hold a men’s shelter. The Family Support Center runs a year-round family shelter at First Christian Church, and the Salvation Army has space mostly for single men, in addition to a cold-weather shelter when the temperature dips below 38 degrees. Bread and Roses hosts a women’s shelter at its guest house and Out of the Woods provides a family shelter on property from the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Kadden gave two fixes to the shelter problem: a “modest staffing stipend” for volunteers and a generator.
Selena Kilmoyer, a longtime homeless advocate, said the word “tortoise” comes to mind when evaluating the progress in fixing the storm response plan. She said that an emergency response needs to assure two things: continued funding for the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties (which helped move people to shelter during the emergency) and for Interfaith Works.
“I mean if something happened tonight, God forbid, we’d be worse off,” she said.
Some are more optimistic. “We wouldn’t have what we need, but with this and the experience, we’d be further ahead,” said Anna Schlecht, housing program manager for the City of Olympia.
She said, though nothing is formalized, talks are moving in the direction of tapping First Christian Church and Temple Beth Hatfiloh for emergency shelter. The two faith communities held a joint homeless services event called Homeless Connect last month for the Thurston County Homeless Census, which Schlecht said served as a kind of dry run for an emergency response.
Mark Collins, a social worker who helped open the First Christian shelter last year, said the meetings did help build relationships with the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
“I feel a measure of confidence that we are a lot farther along in staging another event than we were last year,” he said.Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 firstname.lastname@example.org @MattBatcheldor