If emergency strikes, West Sound is ready



Gordon Koenig had flown air tankers dropping loads of fire retardant on wildfires. He'd seen what they can do, and he'd seen what happens when people aren't prepared for them.

So, a year and a half ago, the then-president of West Sound Community Club decided to do something about it, in his own neighborhood.

The result: West Sound now has its own emergency evacuation plan.

"So we have a plan that encompasses all the members of the community club — about 120 people," said George Karnikis, who took over as head of the emergency evacuation committee recently on Koenig's request. "We have their phone numbers, and e-mail, and the rest of the community is also in our plan to help in case of an emergency."

Here's how it works:

When an evacuatable disaster looms, someone runs down to the West Sound Community Center, where Koenig and his wife, Anita Orne, donated a big compressed-air siren. This giant noisemaker is then sounded — one long and one short blast for a wildfire and three short blasts for a tsunami. And the siren keeps blasting out the signal until the compressed air supply is exhausted.

In case of a fire, everyone is to report to the community center — which, being on the water, is in a good position, close to safety. On the way there, they honk out the same code on the horns of their cars — this was Miles McCoy's idea, Karnikis notes — so that people out of earshot of the siren also get a heads-up.

For a tsunami, there are several designated spots to go to, and everyone is to head for the closest one.

Meanwhile, a phone tree gets started. Assuming phone lines are still up, this gets word of the emergency out via telephone to all 120 people in just a few minutes.

Karnikis said the lessons of Hurricane Katrina have to be taken into account when one lives in a remote place like Orcas Island.

"We expect after weeks, they'd come help us," he said. "But we had to help people right away."

He said specific people are assigned to help with the elderly and also with people's pets.

"One of our members put a directory together," added Ingrid Karnikis, George's wife. "It gives location, age, animals and if they have special needs, like oxygen or being unable to walk, and ages of children."

Once a month (except in the summertime), just before the West Sound Community Center's pot-luck, the system is tested. At 6 p.m. on the first day of the month, the siren sets the drill in motion; then, over dinner half an hour later, everyone debriefs: How did it go? What could have been improved?

The Karnikises said they'd like to see other villages and hamlets around Orcas Island put together similar emergency-preparedness cooperatives.

"I want other communities to adopt such a plan — I want San Juan County to adopt such a plan," George said. "If the communities can help themselves, they make it easier for the fire department and EMTs to do their jobs."

George invited anyone interested in starting an emergency-preparedness group in another of the island's communities to call him at 376-4382.

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