It’s been 318 years since the last great quake on the Cascadia subduction zone on Jan. 26, 1700. That quake, believed to be a magnitude of 9, was felt along the coastal interior of the Pacific Northwest and caused a tsunami that may have been as high as 33 feet.
The 800-mile fault stretches from northern California to southwestern British Columbia. The Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup says earthquakes on the fault occur, on average, every 500 to 600 years, but the years between events have been as few as 100 to 300 years.
We can all do the math. The big one is out there. It’s overwhelming – something we’ll think about when the time comes. I’ve edited as many disaster preparedness stories as you’ve probably read. Did they move you to action? I worry they didn’t. And I’m not alone.
So, starting Monday, we’re trying something new. Something out of the ordinary for The Bellingham Herald. Something I hope gets your blood pumping enough that it moves you to action.
“Imagining the Big One” is a 28-part fictional series that ponders what life in Whatcom County might be like after a great quake. Each episode offers preparedness tips and discussion points. You’ll find a daily chapter online at bhamherald.com/op-ed and we’ll print the week’s chapters in the Sunday newspaper.
The idea came to us from Jim Swift and his team at the Riverstyx Foundation. The Bellingham businessman was concerned that people weren’t prepared for disaster. The foundation created the bellinghamearthquake.info website and funded the fictional series written by John Stark, who retired from The Bellingham Herald in 2014.
The series is Stark’s informed imagination of one person’s experience in the wake of an earthquake big enough to cripple power, water and transportation systems – damage that will take weeks or months to repair.
He consulted geologists and emergency managers and researched how other communities have coped with devastating natural disasters. It was reviewed by area experts for accuracy.
Can I survive without modern conveniences for a couple of weeks?
John Gargett, deputy director of Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, on what people should ask themselves
Stark says he wants readers to imagine what that would be like, and take at least some steps to get more ready than they are now.
“In a region-wide earthquake catastrophe, Whatcom County residents should be prepared to take care of themselves and their neighbors, without expecting immediate assistance from police and fire departments or other emergency responders,” Stark says.
I’ve been through several evacuations from natural disasters. I’m more prepared than some. But John’s story worked on my subconscious. I woke up early Tuesday, worrying about freshwater sources. That’s when I saw the news about the 7.9 Alaska quake and potential tsunami.
Talk about providential timing.
So, too, was my Tuesday meeting with John Gargett, the deputy director of Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management. He has 40 years of experience working on 50 large disasters around the world.
He says resilience is key. We can prepare to be personally resilient, prepare to help our kids, our parents, our neighbors. That’s how communities come together and survive.
Emergency service professionals are prepared and have learned lessons from the past. The lesson of Katrina was learned for Houston: After the hurricane and flooding, we didn’t hear a lot about trouble in Texas. Gargett says that’s because people were allowed to start helping others right away.
Not that there isn’t lots to worry about. But Gargett shared these thoughts with me:
▪ We’re not going to lose law and order. Disasters bring out the best in people.
▪ Communications will be a challenge, but they won’t fail. Cell service may be slow and not available everywhere. After the Japan quake, service was back after 36 hours. Cell service continued during the recent California fires. It’s in the best interests of those companies to keep or return service quickly.
▪ Utilities will be an issue. Power resumption will take longer with infrastructure issues. It took nine days for service to fully return after the Sumas ice storm in early January. Gas infrastructure will have to be checked before service is returned, area by area.
▪ We’re fortunate to have lots of naturally occurring fresh water. We just need to be prepared to treat it for drinking. (That’s easy to find how to do on the internet. But, oops, that might not be so easy after a great quake. I’m marking it on the bottle: For a gallon of water, Clorox says we’ll need 8 drops of regular bleach or 6 drops of concentrated bleach.) Don’t forget your water heater may be a source of clean water.
▪ Food won’t be an issue for most. Our pantries hold more than we suspect. We just need to be prepared to bridge the time from the quake to when emergency supplies arrive.
▪ Sanitation has the potential to be problematic. But some rope, a tarp and a trench latrine will have to do. Or a bucket.
▪ Transportation will be an issue. Some roads will have issues. We’ll want to save our gasoline for emergencies. You might need to take somebody to the hospital, or better, the local fire department for treatment. (Even better, know which neighbor is a nurse.) Keep in mind your vehicle can be a great shelter.
Gargett reminds us that quakes happen without warning. It might not happen at a time when the family is together. Now is the time to plan ahead, to ensure family members’ schools and senior living facilities have updated emergency plans that are exercised regularly.
He added that we also need to prepare in case the quake hits while we’re at work or in our car.
Returning to the theme of resiliency, he says we need to ask ourselves, “can I survive without modern conveniences for a couple of weeks?”
I won’t like it, but I can do it. And I’ll bet you can, too. But it will be easier for us all if we’re prepared. So I hope you’ll read Stark’s story. Don’t let it scare you, but let it inspire you.
Sign up for Bellingham Herald news alerts by text message at bit.ly/2G8amIy; sign up for Whatcom Emergency Alerts and get the AlertSense My Alerts app for your mobile phone in the Apple Store or from Google Play.
Family and neighbors are our first line of response in an emergency. As our fictional account wraps up Feb. 25, we’ll offer a printed map in the newspaper and downloadable maps online that will assist you in talking to your neighbors and taking note of skills and concerns that will help us all be more resilient and survive in the aftermath of disaster.