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On the 5-year anniversary of the Greenwood gas explosion, the value of community cannot be overstated

I remember sitting bolt upright in bed some time in the middle of the night on March 9th, 2016 – not a normal occurrence, to be sure. My wife, Samantha, got in the car to go to work around 6:30am, then came back in after she turned on the radio. “Honey, you better get down to the cafe.”

What briefly woke me up some hours before, and has been well-documented since, was a massive explosion some 20 blocks away from my house and in the heart of Greenwood’s business district. My former business, the Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe, was across the street and suffered extensive damage throughout. Other businesses had it much worse, as the popular Neptune Coffee, beloved Mr. Gyros, and Greenwood Quick Stop were all reduced to rubble. Others were forced to move or close: Kouzina Greek Restaurant, G&O Family Cyclery, and the Better Hearing Center. It was a miracle that nobody was killed.

The rest of the day was a blur. I remember standing in the cold drizzle for hours waiting for the all clear. I remember Rachael, owner of Coyle’s Bakeshop, gathering a group of dazed business owners and baking us fresh cookies to go with grim and worried chatter. Mayor Murray and a group of first responders met with business owners in Tobey and Reina’s dojo, Emerald City Karate. A friend came and took me to Pete’s Eggnest to get me away from the endless wait.

Much of the news coverage described the damage as “minor” to surrounding businesses, in reality my business and many others suffered tens of thousands of dollars worth of physical damage, and tens of thousands more in lost business. Small businesses are not built to withstand that kind of impact.

Puget Sound Energy, who was ultimately found responsible for the uncapped gas pipe and explosion, did not reach out to the affected businesses, admit responsibility, or offer anything in the way of assistance. The City did what they could in facilitating Disaster Relief loans, but ultimately what is needed in situations like this is cold, hard cash.

And who come through with that? Our Phinney Neighborhood Association. Full disclosure: I now work at the PNA, but my gratitude toward them and how they acted in this crisis goes far beyond that. As a small business owner you have a hundred priorities at once, and trying to deal with your business effectively being hit by a bomb is a lot to handle.

The inside of Chaco Canyon on March 9, 2016

While PSE busied itself with denial and blame, the PNA quickly diverted and raised funds, put together an Advisory Board, and distributed $64,000 to 12 evacuated residents and 30 displaced employees less than 1 week after the explosion. I was so amazed, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Seattle Times.

Emilia Jones, who was on that Advisory Board and a PNA employee at the time, has this memory of that experience: “What I remember the most about the days and weeks following the Greenwood gas explosion was the warmth, kindness, and solidarity shown by the community during that time. At the PNA, we were initially overwhelmed by so many people reaching out to ask how they could help the people and businesses that had been hurt. It took several days of talking to shaken business owners and residents for us to understand how widespread the damage from the blast was. But as soon as we set up a donation page and started sharing information and updates, the community sprang into action. Donations poured in to help business owners afford repairs and cover lost revenue, employees get by without their paychecks, and residents of damaged apartment buildings afford new places to stay. Then came the extraordinary effort to beautify the boarded-up buildings with colorful murals. The PNA worked with the City, the County, the Red Cross, and countless others to coordinate the relief effort, but the community made Greenwood’s recovery possible.”

The PNA continued to raise funds, collaborate with businesses on fundraising events, auction off Holiday Monkeys and post-explosion artwork, and be in close communication with over 50 affected businesses to see how they could best get us all through this. I can’t describe the relief that washed over me as a small business owner when I received assistance from the PNA; employees, orchards, and utilities would be paid, and I could sleep.

In the end, the PNA created and distributed over $330,000 in relief funds to help local small businesses and organized volunteer work parties that helped refurbish the impacted area. The organization was presented with the 2017 King County Executive’s Award for Community Resilience for our efforts. That’s the power of community.

PSE eventually came around after being publicly shamed by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, but it was the efforts and dedication by the PNA that made the difference for our community and dozens of local businesses that make our lives here better.

On this 5-year anniversary of an event that could have devastated our neighborhood, I ask you to ensure your PNA Membership is current, and if you have not yet been a member to consider doing so for the good of the community around you. An individual membership starts at just $40 per year and households at $70 – not too much to pay to make your community stronger and more connected in these challenging times!

To become a PNA member, you can do so online or in person at the Phinney Center M-F between 9am – 5pm. To check if your membership is current, please email Membership Manager Chardell Paine at chardell@phinneycenter.org.