Dean Kahn

How to help if disaster strikes Whatcom County

Mel Monkelis is program director at the Volunteer Center of Whatcom County, which will oversee a Volunteer Mobilization Center in the event of a major disaster in the county.
Mel Monkelis is program director at the Volunteer Center of Whatcom County, which will oversee a Volunteer Mobilization Center in the event of a major disaster in the county. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Imagine that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hits the Northwest, the “really big one” that Whatcom County residents know deep in their heart could happen during their lifetime.

The ground stops shaking, finally, after four minutes that feel like a lifetime. Aftershocks follow, some of them strong and long-lasting.

Dazed, county residents check on their loved ones. If they planned ahead, they pull out their emergency supply of food, water, and other survival equipment, and check to see how their neighbors are doing.

While damage in Whatcom County might not be as bad as elsewhere west of the Cascades, it could be several weeks for basics like clean water and food supplies to become readily available again, and much longer for roads and other damaged infrastructure to be repaired.

In the meantime, many residents will want to help others, and will learn they’re supposed to go to a “Volunteer Mobilization Center.” But who organizes those volunteers? In Whatcom County, the people who process the volunteers will be people who register ahead of time to staff the mobilization center.

The basic notion is that volunteers off the street should not decide on their own where to help, because a situation might not be safe and because they might be needed more elsewhere.

A public presentation will be held Saturday, Jan. 23, to explain Whatcom County’s planned Volunteer Mobilization Center, the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the region, and what people can do ahead of time to prepare for a major disaster.

“We’re a processing center to fulfill the volunteer needs,” said Mel Monkelis, program director at the Volunteer Center of Whatcom County. “We’re simply processing John and Jane Does who want to help.”

The idea of a local mobilization center came together about five years ago, and a grant three years ago from Puget Sound Energy helped put the plan on firm ground, Monkelis said.

The mobilization center will be set up by the Volunteer Center, now part of the Opportunity Council, at the request of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. It will take more than typical Nooksack River flooding to activate the Volunteer Mobilization Center.

You have a peace of mind when you have a plan in place.

Mel Monkelis, Volunteer Center of Whatcom County

“We’re framing the VMC to be used in overwhelming disasters,” Monkelis said.

The basic notion is that volunteers off the street should not decide on their own where to help, because a situation might not be safe and because they might be needed more elsewhere. At a mobilization center, volunteers are registered, interviewed, given safety advice, and assigned to a local agency or other site where their skills can best be put to use.

While Whatcom County offers training for community members who want to be first-responders in an emergency, no specialized training is required of people who sign up to help staff the mobilization center.

During the two-hour presentation Saturday, Rebekah Paci-Green, director of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University, will discuss the type of damage Whatcom residents could expect from a major earthquake, and a panel of local experts will discuss emergency preparedness and response.

Information is readily available about what people should do in advance to prepare for an emergency. The challenge, Monkelis said, is to encourage people to consider emergency preparedness as routine and valuable as, say, car insurance.

“We would like to get disaster preparedness at home thought of in the same way,” he said. “You have a peace of mind when you have a plan in place.”

Correction: The contact phone number for the Jan. 23 meeting was corrected Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.

Open house

Topic: Volunteer Mobilization Center, earthquakes, and emergency preparedness.

When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 23.

Where: Garden Street United Methodist Church, 1326 N. Garden St., room B. Enter from the parking lot on southwest side of the building.

RSVP: Admission is free, but seating is limited. To sign up for a seat in advance, go to WhatcomVolunteer.org/Disaster. People who have registered will be admitted first on Saturday; if space is still available, walk-ins will then be admitted.

Details. 360-734-3055.

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