King County Executive Dow Constantine today presented the Phinney Neighborhood Association with the Executive’s Award for Community Resilience for helping organize the massive community rebuilding effort after the March 9, 2016, natural gas explosion that leveled three businesses and damaged another 50, and injured nine firefighters.
Immediately after the early-morning explosion, the PNA’s phones began ringing as community members asked how they could help the businesses and residents affected. PNA Executive Director Lee Harper said she and other staff members really didn’t know what to do, but they met at Chocolati Café – half a block from the explosion site and with plywood windows after the blast broke most of its windows – and decided they could at least put up a “donate now” button on the PNA’s website.
“We quickly realized, oh, this is not just a ‘donate now’ button, this is much, much more,” Harper said.
That initial decision eventually turned into a huge fundraising effort that collected more than $330,000 for affected businesses and residents, an advisory board to make sure those funds were distributed equitably, and helped rally neighbors to clean up broken glass, and patronize affected businesses. The PNA also coordinated with the city’s Office of Economic Development, Department of Neighborhoods and the Red Cross.
Another community volunteer group, Urban Hands, organized 150 volunteers the weekend after the explosion to clean up the area, paint murals and plant flowers.
“And then, in the best demonstration of community pride, they patronized local cafes, pubs and restaurants after the work was done. That’s right, they selflessly ate and drank the community back to health,” Constantine said to laughter. “That’s why I created the Executive’s Award for Community Resilience, to honor and to celebrate this kind of effort.”
Harper said the PNA has become an organization that others now come to for guidance after a disaster. She noted that when Bothell suffered a devastating fire on its Main Street later that year, Bothell officials called the PNA for help in organizing the community.
“This is not the kind of knowledge that you want to have, but now that we have it, it’s been great to be able to help other folks,” she said.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles and State Rep. Noelle Frame also attended and spoke at the awards ceremony, along with AJ Cari from the city’s Office of Economic Development, Chaco Canyon owner Chris Maykut, Seattle ReCreative co-owner Jenna Boitano, and Kelly Kasper, who was the Greenwood Community Council’s Health and Safety Committee Chair at the time of the explosion, and who lives half a block away and was jolted out of her bed that morning. She also does disaster preparedness for a living.
“What we saw were people coming together as a community,” Kasper said. “This was a huge event for a small area. We have the potential to have a huge event for a huge area. Let’s learn from what went well here, and as a community, get prepared for the next interruption.”
Maykut said the county should rename the award after the PNA, because future award winners will have a lot to live up to. O’Brien echoed that sentiment, saying our neighborhood is lucky to have the PNA.
“This whole community went to bed on the 8th and woke up on the morning of the 9th to a completely new reality,” O’Brien said. “Whether you were a business owner or an employee working at one of those businesses that was completely gone. At the center of all this, of this community, was the Phinney Neighborhood Association and the amazing work that they do. And I think today about where this community is, and it’s still in the recovery process for sure, but so much better off than if it were a community that didn’t have a resource like PNA.”