Worldchanging Seattle Interview: Seattle's Snow Response

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When Seattle was hit with record snowfall toward the end of December, I wrote about how many people – myself included – used the opportunity to explore urban life on a very local level. We used walking as the exclusive means of transportation, stayed within the confines of our own neighborhoods, chatted with neighbors about the weather, and patronized local businesses.

But for those who cannot walk, cannot venture out into icy streets, or are isolated for other reasons, the snow and resulting public transit crisis had much darker implications. For those who couldn't easily reach a grocery store, or for anyone who relied on a food bank or other institution, the closed-off streets (and concurrent holiday slowdown) presented a hazardous challenge.

There are, however, things that we can do to make our communities more resilient, both in safe times when we have the luxury of preparing, and also when disaster strikes. I recently connected with Jill Watson, Emergency Management Planner at the City of Seattle Human Services Department, to discuss the impacts of the winter storm on local communities and food security, the City's response, and local resources to help Seattle residents arm themselves for unexpected emergencies.

Julia Levitt: What areas of the city, and what groups of people, were hit the hardest with food-related needs during the snowstorm ?

Jill Watson: All areas were hit hard by the snow, but any place where people with fewer financial and food resources were impacted by a greater degree.

We heard that people who were unable to leave their homes due to the snow, such as some senior citizens and adults with disabilities needed assistance in obtaining food, and in some cases, medicines. Additionally, people who relied on assistance from food banks had challenges when those programs weren’t open as usual or they weren’t able to get to them because of the transportation challenges caused by the snow.

JL: Was the main the food issue mainly that there wasn't a grocery store nearby; that the food banks were closed; that people couldn't go outside at all if they were disabled?

JW: In general, it was people with limited financial resources who were impacted the most. For those trying to access food banks, the issues were two-fold: the food bank might not have been open, or transportation to the food bank was a challenge. For instance, people who might have driven to the food bank could not safely navigate from their home to the food bank, and if they would normally walk to the food bank or bus stop, the sidewalks may have been too dangerous or the alternate bus snow route too far away. ACCESS bus service was also limited during this time, so that provided additional challenges to people with disabilities or who would be more at risk in slippery cold conditions.

The holidays created additional complications as services, including food banks and social service agencies closed as they normally do during this time of year. However, the snow added in additional closures and reduced hours as people were unable to get to offices to open their doors.

JL: Could you discuss some examples of how the City respond to the problem?

JW: The City’s first step in response is preparedness. Year round, the city works on disaster response, not only internally, but also with the community to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Part of this preparedness includes programs such as Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare (SNAP) and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). See for more information.

Seattle’s Emergency Operation Center coordinated incoming requests and anything involving food, shelter or medicines was directed to the appropriate emergency contact person. These people are already identified and work together throughout the year to plan and prepare for responding to disasters.

The City of Seattle teamed up with King County Public Health to develop an emergency preparedness program that included grants to non-profits providing key services for completing Agency Emergency Plans.

As one part of emergency preparedness, The City of Seattle has monthly meetings for the Emergency Support Function 6 (ESF-6), Mass Care, Housing, and Human Services. This group consists of city departments that contribute to the ESF-6 role, as well as many non-profits, coalitions, and other government partners that have a role in caring for people in disasters. In our monthly meetings we do trainings, walk through disaster scenarios, share best practices, and strategize on how we can coordinate our disaster response efforts most effectively.

For senior citizens and adults with disabilities we were able to send case managers to assist with food needs. The Aging and Disability Services Division does extensive disaster preparedness work both with their clients and with their case managers. The case managers closely monitored their clients to ensure that they had food, medicines and were making critical medical appointments. This included delivering food if needed. In some cases, personal care providers could not make it to people’s homes as frequently as scheduled to provide assistance such as grocery shopping or meal preparation. In these cases, friends and family members were able to step in and help out.

We worked with 2-1-1 to provide resource options as many services closed for the holidays and would not be available for several days (the Christmas holiday was close to a weekend). 2-1-1 also provided messages preceding the storm to make sure callers had arrangements for food or to ask 2-1-1 for assistance. This message idea came out of discussions in the ESF-6 group.
Finally, the City plowed food bank access areas as requested by the food banks.

JL: What helps strengthen the city response in emergency situations like this—is it non-profits like food banks and other aid organizations; is it volunteers; is there anything that you could suggest that people do within their own neighborhoods?

JW: Every piece helps. As 2-1-1 observed from calls that they received: “Preparedness was key.” And in times like this “strengthening personal resources and neighbor relations” is important.

When mobility is restricted, as with this snowstorm, it becomes even more important that neighbors are checking on neighbors, especially the most vulnerable in their communities. This could be those who have limited physical skills or who aren’t fluent in English. Or it could be someone who is sick or injured and unable to easily leave their home.

Personal preparedness can’t be emphasized enough. Each person who is able to get through a disaster is one more person who might be able to help others and who might not need assistance themselves.

Non-profits are always important—whether responding to a disaster or meeting day-to-day needs. And volunteers are also key to responding, whether it is with an organization or simply looking out for others in their communities. In any disaster, community is a powerful response.

One simple action from this storm that people could take to help each other would be to shovel snow off the sidewalk. Again and again, we heard of challenges as people were injured or unable to navigate the snowy conditions.

If you have feedback, suggestions or just want more information about the local government response to weather emergencies, the City is hosting its final of three open-house discussions about the snow tonight from 6-8 p.m. at the Southwest Community Center, 2801 SW Thistle St., in West Seattle.

Photo credit: flickr/John Mundy, Creative Commons license.

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