The small explosion of noxious fumes occurred after a 9-year-old child knocked chlorine tablets into a 5-gallon bucket of liquid in a community's pool-supply area, according to Palo Alto firefighters.
The incident was a learning experience for residents, said Caryll-Lynn Taylor, an organizer of the new Midtown Court Neighbors and Friends group.
"It really gave us an entré into what a real evacuation is about. When you cannot bring anything you need like medications and you don't have time to get your keys, it really is daunting. We really came together like we never have before and connected in some pretty profound ways," she said.
The "neighborhood enclave within an enclave" encompasses the 80-plus-unit apartment complex at 2721 and 2727 Midtown Court. But the neighbors' association invites residents from Colorado Avenue, Randors Court, Rosewood Drive and Middlefield Road to its events and picnics, she said.
While residents wanted to learn more about emergency preparedness after the incident, most didn't want to commit to the official City of Palo Alto/Palo Alto Neighborhoods Block-Preparedness Coordinator program, Taylor said.
In the past, the neighbors did have a vibrant emergency-response team. During power outages in 2009 and 2010, team members checked on residents. When the explosion occurred in 2011, they notified everyone on their emergency-contact list about the evacuation order.
But Midtown Court has experienced a high turnover rate since 2010 — a new phenomenon for the usually stable complex of longtime inhabitants, she said. Five of the 12 core preparedness-team members have moved away, as have dozens of other residents. The situation meant that new tenants needed to be educated about emergency preparation, she said.
So Taylor, her husband, David, and other residents developed a low-commitment strategy that combines social events with small doses of preparedness — "baby steps," she said.
In October the neighborhood association held a picnic at Hoover Park. Organizers invited the Red Cross, which had suggested gathering together people who felt vulnerable after the explosion, rather than focusing on counseling sessions.
"People could talk in an organic way and feel open. And many of them did," Taylor said.
The association has expanded the picnics to twice annually and added a Zero-Waste recycling event with a coffee chat in March. It's part coffee klatsch, part recycling education, and part household hazardous-waste collection event. In June guest speakers from the Palo Alto Police Department talked about bicycle safety. And in July a representative from Ace Fire Equipment will check and recharge household fire extinguishers, she said.
"It's something (residents) can do easily, and there's nothing overwhelming about it. We're not telling somebody to stop their life and 'Go do that,'" Taylor said.
The group also celebrates impending births through its Welcome Baby program. Neighbors pitch in to purchase a gift for an expectant mother and include information on infant and child cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Most of the mothers now have CPR training, Taylor said.
Alison Wilson, who has lived at Midtown Court since 1969 and contributes to Welcome Baby, said the neighborhood group "really has made a huge difference."
"I know if anything goes wrong they will be right on top of it," she said. She also takes advantage of dropping off her expired medications during the waste-collection event. She would normally have to take the prescription drugs to the city's Municipal Services Center, she said.
Farah Dilber moved to the apartments in June 2011. Prior to moving to Palo Alto she lived in a large apartment complex in Houston, Texas, that didn't offer crime updates, emergency preparation or other programs, she said.
Dilber provides Internet service for the residents' group and creates literature for activities. She said the bite-sized approach to emergency preparedness is good for busy people such as herself.
"The idea of going to a full-day or half-day-long program is daunting for many people," she said.
Taylor said social events make building a better-prepared community more feasible in a neighborhood with high turnover.
Getting new people to know each other and to prepare for emergencies even in small ways can have lifesaving consequences. A case in point: When a small oven fire began in one of the apartments, residents discovered the building's fire extinguisher didn't work.
"That's when people really made a commitment," she said.
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