Written by Leslie MacKenzie, based on an interview with Deborah Stinson and Judy Alexander of Local 20/20, a Transition Initiative in Port Townsend, Washington.

Port Townsend’s unique county-community neighborhood preparedness project, NPREP, grew from a big-hearted sister-city project that took volunteers from a coastal town in Washington State to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi (pop 9,260). That isolated community had been hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. Federal aid dollars poured into nearby New Orleans, while Bay St. Louis struggled to recover.

Judy Alexander was one of the Katrina sister city project organizers.

“When we came back, we recognized the similarities between our communities, and we thought about the exposure we had to earthquake risk.”  After hearing Judy’s stories, Deborah Stinson reflected that, “We could be in the same situation, but would have no advanced warning. We knew we had to do something to make ourselves more resilient.”

The Katrina volunteers met with folks from Local 20/20, a newly formed sustainability and resilience group.  Local 20/20 got on board with starting an Action Group to increase community preparedness.

Judy and Deborah began by surveying the community to see who else was working on this issue. “We did a little gap analysis, but mostly we were mapping assets,” Deborah said.

That’s when they invited Bob Hamlin, Director of Jefferson County’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM),  over to Judy’s house for lunch.

“We were fascinated with Bob and the impressive network of resources and connections he’d established over the years,” Deborah said. “Together, we recognized that DEM’s biggest challenge would be incorporating engaged residents into that network. In the spirit of partnership, we said, ‘We have the capacity to organize neighborhoods and if we can connect with your officialdom, we can expand your capacity to respond to emergencies.’ He was receptive, fascinated, and a bit dumbfounded.”

Now they needed to show him that their fledgling group could deliver.

“I’d lived in this community since 1979,” Judy reflected, “so I know a lot of people in this town of 8,500.  I know the neighborhoods, and people within many of those neighborhoods who have social capital, who were friendly or already knew many of their neighbors.  And I’m comfortable with inviting people to get involved with stuff.”

And invite they did. They kicked off the effort by holding two community meetings on the same day, one in the morning, and another that same evening. They invited community members and speakers from Bob’s emergency response network – from the Red Cross, EMTs, from Police and Fire Departments.

The message from all the agency presenters was the same. They called it YOYO – ‘You’re on your own.’  Basically, they told residents: ‘If we have an earthquake, you may not see us for two weeks. We’ll be taking care of our families and then big picture issues like clearing roads. You have to take responsibility for yourselves and your immediate neighbors.’

Although the bottom-line message was fear-based, it sparked the group’s ability to motivate neighbors. “We ended up with 30 neighborhood organizers across the county – half from the cities, half from the surrounding area.”

“I could see that many of the community members we had invited were social organizers, even if they didn’t see themselves that way. We were inviting them to step into a leadership role and we gave them the support and tools to do so,” Judy said.

The preparedness team put together a table of resources. “We tried our best to anticipate what they would need,” Judy recalled. “We drafted an email to send to neighbors, door hangers, invitations to a potluck. We asked them to share what they’d learned from our meeting of First Responders with their neighbors, telling them what we can and cannot expect First Responders to do and about the opportunities we have to take care of ourselves, first in households, then in neighborhoods.”

Initially, participants were encouraged to get their own emergency preparedness planning solid at the household level: to get a go-bag together, a pet evacuation plan figured out, emergency water supply stashed away. There was not much emphasis on neighborhood support in that first year as NPREP leveraged the knowledge and expertise of their partners. That would come later.

Eventually, the group began developing new neighborhood organizing tools. About the same time, Washington State DEM launched the Map Your Neighborhood tool and used NPREP as their beta project.

“That particular tool really helped us take our networking to the next level, helping us take inventory of all the skills and supplies people had. The state even produced a video to help people fill in the blanks,” Deborah said.

“Mapping Your Neighborhood furthers awareness of your resources, of resilience. You find out who runs a daycare, who knows how to deal with mental health issues, who is a doctor, who’s an infrastructure person who can shut off water and propane tanks.

“It helps people become comfortable sharing information, not in some government database, but among neighbors. It’s not shared broadly, not pushed upstream. It’s only used by the folks up the street and in an emergency. That makes people more willing to share.

“Some people want safety from crime. Some want to know their neighbors. Some folks with physical disabilities may need help from people nearby. The map created a network of appreciation for each other’s needs, skills, and what each person brings to the resilience network.”

Judy chimed in: “When my stepson moved out of his organized neighborhood, he gave his neighborhood map to the next renter and said ‘You need to have this. You need to give your contact info to others in the neighborhood.’”

Over time folks in the DEM realized what the NPREP group was accomplishing. The Jefferson County / Port Townsend Regional Emergency Preparedness (JPREP) group met quarterly with all emergency responders in their network, usually 25 people. They opened up their meetings to neighborhood organizers as well.

“As many as 15 community organizers attend now,” Judy said. “These meetings were really helpful to seeing the big picture of how we will survive. It’s greatly enhancing the sense of familiarity and connection between the neighborhoods and the more ‘official’ responders in the network.

“As Bob was fond of saying, ‘The day after a disaster isn’t the time to be exchanging business cards.’

“Our emergency management department counts on us to bring people together and to provide them with a lot of information from topic experts in the field. We held quarterly gatherings to support neighborhood organizers on such topics as crisis mental health,” Judy said.

“We tried hard not to cross purposes with the DEM. It wouldn’t be healthy for the relationship if we started promoting ideas or materials they hadn’t bought into,” Deborah reflected.

Judy agreed: “If we suggested things too far outside their comfort zone, their eyes would glaze over. When they suggested things like the radio network, our eyes glazed over. We didn’t have the technology comfort. They didn’t have the relational comfort. The important thing was that we respected each other’s strengths, and were able to work out a healthy balance, a synergy actually, between tech and relationships.”

Deborah and Judy emphasized the importance of empathy in these working relationships.

“A lot of people are passionate about what they believe in. They want to change others’ beliefs.”

That’s rarely productive.

For example, Judy shared that one DEM member was invested in the online tool NextDoor.

“I was like, ‘No way do I want to use NextDoor!’ Guess what, I signed up for NextDoor 6 months ago. He convinced us that tech solutions were real solutions and we convinced him that relationships really matter.

“He lives on a nearby island, here in the Sound. They had tried to organize their island for a long time using technology (listservs). When we came up with a neighborhood-by-neighborhood idea he said, ‘Our island is a neighborhood.’ His neighbors said, ‘No, not really. That’s too big.’”

There were several pocket neighborhoods on the island that were very rural, with 5- and 10-acre lots. The Map Your Neighborhood tool didn’t work for them; technology worked better. But when communication lines were down, they needed other ways to connect. They adjusted the mapping tool and came up with a new plan to seek help from neighbors. It became the model for rural locations and new pages were added to the state’s website as a result.

The folks at Local 20/20 knew they were seen by others in Jefferson County as Port Townsend-focused. But the original organizers cared about the whole county and they wanted to expand their reach so in 2012 they launched an all-county picnic.

Deborah explained their new approach:

“It dawned on us that a fear-based approach had limited value in terms of initiating new organizers. There is more power in inviting people to something positive.

“We hired Danny Milholland (The Production Alliance) to help us create an event that reflected that shift from negative to positive. We landed on the notion of an all-county picnic where the energy was fun and celebratory while also being informational and outreach oriented. We were able to convince Bob Hamlin that the picnic was worth funding to help achieve our mutual goal of creating more organized neighborhoods, especially in the rural areas of the county.”

The picnic was a big success and now takes place annually on the 3rd Sunday in August. Held at a park in the middle of the county, it attracts people with free corn-on-the-cob, live music, informational speakers, and 30-40 pop-up canopies with different organizations providing information on topics such as community gardens, composting toilets, public health issues, radio communications, and more. Anyone with $20 who can make a case for their role in emergency preparedness can set up a booth.

“There is so much offered at the picnic that you can’t take it all in. You have to keep coming back year after year,” Deborah mused. “One constant is the NPREP booth where new neighborhood organizers can sign up and existing neighborhoods can learn new ‘best practices.’ We now have 150 neighborhood organizers.”

Bob Hamlin couldn’t believe they convinced him to host a community picnic, but with annual attendance around 1,000 people, the picnic eventually replaced the Department’s presence at the county fair. It was a more effective vehicle for education. Now the department puts grant money toward the picnic.

Benefits of the County-Community Partnership

As Deborah observed, “The creativity you unleash in networks is so much more powerful than a top-down approach. People within the organizer network came up with their own creative possibilities. For example, concerns about emergency preparedness for pets spawned DAWG, the Dog and Animal Welfare Group. One neighborhood designated their nearby tennis court as their pet shelter care spot.”

At one picnic, a woman in a wheelchair reached out to them wanting to know what NPREP was doing for people with disabilities.

“We hadn’t done as much as we could have, and she volunteered to help,” Deborah added. “Through Bob we connected her with Public Health, and they created a series of classes for people with disabilities, with free go-bags to participants. Now we have vulnerable population education as an on-going part of emergency preparedness. Individuals and their caregivers are taught how to identify needs and how to get their unique needs met. We’re incredibly grateful to her.”

Another example of individual creativity was Heather Taracka. She had lived through hurricanes in Florida, where she had taught emergency preparedness. She got a space here at the Unitarian Church and for 8 months, once a month, she taught classes based on her website Get Emergency & Disaster Prepared. Each month covered a different element of preparedness and it motivated a lot of people to get their supplies organized.

Challenges

It’s important to know that if you take responsibility to organize a project like this, and then a disaster occurs, people will look to you as a leader. You need to be prepared to lead and you need to take ownership.

“You must be willing to replace yourself. If you step out of your role, you need to invite someone else to step into the role,” said Judy. “We are part of the community response plan now. We can’t just walk away. We can’t say, ‘I’m done with that and move on.’

“The resilience of a community requires that people be invited to use their skills and talents in service of the common good. I think that networks encourage people to volunteer but you have to be willing to invite. That’s one of the talents I brought from the very beginning, the ability to look out at the community and recognize who has what strengths and invite them to step up and use those strengths on behalf of the community.”

“This is a relationally based model and relationships require tending,” said Judy.

“Networks also require updating and maintenance.  People move away, and new people move in. This all impacts the Map Your Neighborhood tool.”

At one point, Deborah recalls, it got scary. Judy had moved on to work establishing community gardens and Deborah herself was running for city council.  But now she was the primary organizer with not enough support. “I called Judy and said, ‘You have to come back!’ That’s when we came up with the idea of a picnic to invite more participation in the core NPREP Team.”

Another major challenge is right-sizing the number of homes that can be managed by a single neighborhood organizer. Organizers need to define their own boundaries.  “I took on my neighborhood of 150 homes,” Judy said. “Once I saw what I had taken on I realized I needed sub-neighborhood organizers. I got 8 people within those 150 houses to step up as a team.”

If You Want to Replicate This Project: 

  • Start by looking at your community and mapping its assets. What’s already happening? Who is already engaged? You don’t need to duplicate the efforts of others.
  • Talk to people, especially those doing emergency management. Where do they struggle? In Jefferson County, they struggled with community engagement. Can a neighborhood approach help?
  • Realize that every neighborhood is different.  Some are regimented and do drills; others have the occasional potluck. Whatever happens has to reflect how the neighborhood really is.
  • Start with the idea that you will need to sustain this effort. How will you keep it populated with people who can do the work?
  • Remember the power of celebration. When you provide fun, people want to show up. When you send out the message that they are on their own, some people will show up because they take that empowerment seriously, but a lot of people won’t.  Some people are motivated by fun and food. Food helps a LOT.
  • Know your tool set. What’s available to you already? Check out Map Your Neighborhood.
  • Partner with your local emergency management response teams. Respect their expertise and limitations. And avoid ‘going rogue’ as you help to expand horizons and encourage collaboration and synergy.