It was the dead of night when Lee Shipman was rudely awakened by her emergency radio with alerts of a tsunami hitting Japan last year. The first-ever Shoalwater Bay tribe emergency management director had been up and listening for several minutes before calls started coming in from the state and counties to spread the alarm.
It’s just the kind of edge a coastal community can use if a tsunami strikes the other side of the ocean some day.
In the past seven years since establishing an emergency management program, Shoalwater Bay has made impressions nationwide with its use of a small population and small resources in big ways to prepare to help themselves when disaster strikes.
“We’re at the end of the world here,” Shipman said. “We’re a small population. We’re the last ones they’re going to help. It’s not that they don’t want to, they’re just going to be focused on the bigger population.”
Creating the program
Shipman didn’t dream of planning for disasters all her life — although now that she’s been at the helm for seven years, she thinks maybe she should have been.
“I love it, it’s the job I should have had my whole life,” she said from her office tucked away in the tribal wellness center.
She didn’t come with specialized training or experience in emergency management. While she was working for the tribe’s medical billing service, there wasn’t any kind of organized plan in place at all.
In 2005, one component of a grant the tribe won required some emergency management preparation, and it fell to Shipman to go to a training meeting.
“I just loved it. I wanted to soak in everything I could,” she recalls. “I knew I could make a difference here with our people. We have such talented people here. They were remote, and I knew they would want to help each other and learn everything they had to to take care of each other.”
Tribal Council Chairperson Charlene Nelson remembers discussions back to 2003 worrying about what the tribe would do in an emergency, but there just wasn’t a good sense of how to go about getting prepared. They had a good plan from Pacific County, Nelson said, but they wanted something specific to the tribe that would give them some independence.
“In the end, we’re responsible for ourselves. We know this will probably happen in the middle of the night, pitch black, no power,” Nelson said.
They knew they would need equipment and training and funding, but how to get all that was a bit of a mystery.
“We really didn’t know how to go about getting any of that,” she said. “Lee loved it, and she did a really good job at it, too.”
Shipman came back from the meeting with a drive to make changes in the tribe, spreading the word on how to be ready for an emergency and how to help others when the time comes. The council created a new position for her to lead the charge: Emergency Management Director. She started partnering with Pacific and Grays Harbor counties and the state, finding training meetings, and getting the community involved in planning and participating in disaster plans.
“I just took a common sense approach. I knew our people needed to be safe, we needed to do things to help make them safe, so we started planning for the worst case,” Shipman said.
The worst case for a small community right on the water: earthquakes and tsunamis.
The tribe had the trees removed on Eagle Hill in Tokeland and made an evacuation route, with supply caches along the way. Every year, they have mandatory evacuation drills for all tribal employees, with many residents along the way joining in.
More than 250 people from Tokeland to Westport have participated in community emergency response team training, emergency notification equipment and sirens have been acquired, and the feedback all over the reservation has been relief that finally, everyone knows what to do.
“I would say you would like to clone her,” said Dave Nelson with the state Emergency Management Division. He’s worked with Shipman since she took on her new role, and said people from all over the country now contact Shipman to talk about what’s she’s done with a small community. A big part of the tribe’s exceptional program, he said, was establshing an emergency manager, and finding the right person to fill the role.
He added that Shipman has done an exceptional job tracking down and taking advantage of a variety of programs that can add to the tribe’s resources, including a military surplus program through Joint-Base Lewis McChord that has supplied them with a variety of equipment.
“She’s very driven, very caring for her people. … She does a very good job following up on pursuing anything that is going to be a benefit to the tribe,” he said.
It’s a transformation that would have been hard to foresee for Shipman when she returned to Shoalwater Bay 12 years ago from Indiana.
Shipman was born on the reservation in a little house near the gas station in 1946. She was the ninth of 12 children, although she was the last to be born at home.
Her story is part of a modern travesty from which her tribe and her culture is still recovering. In 1954, at age eight, she and six of her siblings were taken from their home.
“I was one of those children they took away from Indian homes to Americanize them,” she explained.
She and her younger brother, Frank, were taken together, at first to a foster home. Her youngest brother, Ike, was born after they were removed, and she only met him once before her adoption a year later.
Her mother knew where the foster home was initially, Shipman said, but wasn’t allowed to see the children. Instead, she brought the infant boy in a buggy.
“She wheeled him back and forth, back and forth across the street in front of the foster home,” she said. “I recognized her, of course.”
Shipman ran outside and saw her mother and brother. That would be the last time for more than 20 years.
She and Frank were adopted by a couple in Kennewick, where she lived until they moved to Indiana when she was 11.
The siblings grew to love their adopted parents and were treated well by them, but around the time Shipman was 30, Frank began to want to reconnect with their birth family.
“When you’re adopted, no matter how much love there is, there’s always something missing,” she explains after a pause. “You never quite belong. So when we found our family, the world lifted off. I don’t know how to explain how that felt.”
They had an advantage in that they were old enough to know their name and their family’s names before they were adopted, and eventually reconnected with nearly all their birth family. They still haven’t found one brother, Pete Shipman, but hope to reconnect with him too one day.
There were two big visits to Indiana, and Shipman and her brother also visited the reservation. There was a lot of catching up to do, and some explanations were given, whether or not they were needed.
“The older brothers and sisters all felt bad, because they didn’t know this was happening until it was already done. They all said they would have taken us if they knew,” she said.
Her siblings all took to her adopted parents easily, she recalled, but it was tense when the birth parents came to visit.
“It was different. It was tense. No anger whatsoever, just tense,” she said, struggling to find a word to capture the feeling. It was like her birth parents were afraid to say too much, she said, like they were afraid to disturb the home she had known most of her life.
But it wasn’t her only home. When her son, Tony, died at age 22 in 1988, Shipman moved back to the reservation for a year to recover.
“It helped me heal and get through,” she said. She worked for the tribe and got to know her birth family again, pitching in to help start the food program.
She went back to Indiana after that to be with her daughters, Anita, now 47, and Jana, now 40. She still visited every year. Twelve years ago, a former health director for Shoalwater Bay called, asking if she would come back to work for her permanently. Anita had moved back to the reservation, and shortly after, Jana’s family was transferred to Alabama.
“I knew that God wanted me to come out here, I knew that he put the steps in place,” Shipman said of her return. “There’s just a blood bonding. This is home. I feel that this is home.”
Once she took charge of emergency management, Shipman quickly set up annual CERT trainings for anyone who wanted to learn what the community emergency response team would do, or even join it more actively.
Charlene Nelson recalls with rueful laugh the strong encouragement Shipman gave the tribal council to take the 20-hour course. All of them did.
“Lee is very determined. When she gets a good idea, she is very determined, she will share it with the tribe. She works with the council, she encourages us to take trainings. She’s good at that,” Nelson said. “I believe she’s a leader in emergency preparedness. She’s a leader in our community and helping other tribal communities go forward with a plan.”
Most tribal members and many residents off the reservation have taken the training now, and a core team of 25 is prepared to lead people to safety in emergencies. Block leaders have assigned areas to assist in evacuation, and even the more disabled tribal elders have taken the training and know what to do.
One year, it was a requirement for all teens in the tribe’s summer program to participate in CERT — much to their chagrin at first.
“They did not want to do it. They were saying horrible things, not that I could hear them because I was an elder and they wouldn’t let me, but they were,” Shipman said. After the training, “they actually stood up and thanked us and apologized for all the bad words they had said.”
Last year, the tribe held a kid’s preparedness fair. Shipman said the children in the tribe would do drills at school and not realize there was anything in place at home.
“They were scared, they didn’t know we knew how to do anything,” she said.
There were a few typical stations, a story that incorporates messages of preparation, how to make an emergency kit for a family, and some fire safety education. They met first responders and did a practice evacuation. There were some interesting twists, though — after children learned about fire safety and how to use a fire extinguisher, they got to go outside and, under the watchful eye of a fireman, put out a small fire for themselves.
“There was a fireman there, and the little ones, he was holding onto their shirt for dear life,” Shipman recalls with a laugh.
They also gathered around the radios to be used in real emergencies and listened and watched as the adults walked through a drill.
“The kids listened on the radios and they watched their parents and aunties and uncles rescue people,” she said.
Largely because of the efforts of Shipman and the tribe, the tribal council chairperson said, “Our kids know what a real bad storm is and what a tsunami is and what you do now.”
This year, all children 12 and older are helping with the Health/Tsunami Walk on Aug. 13 from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It’s a free event open to anyone, culminating in a barbecue and prize drawing in the afternoon. Booths will be set up along the evacuation route to Eagle Hill.
“So you know where you’re supposed to go, where the route is, and you’ll pick up some goodies and educational material along the way,” Shipman said.
The focus this year will also include marine debris education. With debris from Japan’s tsunami washing up all along the coast, the state is making a push to educate people on what to do when they find items on the beach. Generally, Shipman said, if it’s small pieces of garbage, like Styrofoam, they hope people will just throw it away themselves because the state just doesn’t have the resources to get everywhere for cleanup.
“If there’s any doubt as to if it’s dangerous, call 911 and get experts out there. They’ll come,” she said.
Preparing for the worst
The list of how people can prepare for emergencies is a long one, but Shipman has some highlights:
Get an emergency radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s the radio that first tipped her to the tsunami in Japan, it has its own battery backup if the power goes out, and it can provide a few minutes of extra warning time in a disaster. Free trainings are available to those who qualify, with free radios, but even for families who would need to buy them, it’s worth the cost, Shipman said.
“That would probably be the No. 1 thing to do for everyone,” Shipman said. “Get a NOAA radio. … That could save your family’s life.”
Make an emergency kit, including food, water, batteries and flashlights — enough to last at least three days. In the big 2007 storm, it took more than three days to clear some major roadways, and many households were without power for as many as 11 days.
For more details on how to prepare, visit emd.wa.gov.
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933 or by email: email@example.com