Editor’s note: This in one of a series of fictional accounts that imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a great earthquake funded by the Riverstyx Foundation. Each episode offers preparedness tips and discussion points. Read more about the series here.
Episode 2 - Day 1
As I sat on the wet gravel and dirt where the path had been, staring at a cellphone that could only tell me the time of day, I noticed my hands were shaking. The horror had stopped. The ground was still. I was not dead or bleeding. But my central nervous system was still set to code red – heart pounding, chest heaving in air by the lungful.
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I waited until I was sure my 67-year-old legs could keep me vertical. It took me a couple of tries, but I got those legs underneath me and staggered to my feet. My legs were still shaking. I sat back down, taking deep, slow breaths and trying to calm myself as I looked around at the landscape the quake had rearranged.
There was nothing calming to see under the leaden, still-sprinkling sky. The once-stately trees on the bluffs above Padden Creek were all awry. The parking lot was chunks of asphalt. The seismic jackhammer had been thorough. You could have scooped it all up with a front-end loader.
In the middle of that was my little Honda, leaning downward into the mess, its alarm blaring. I pulled the key out of my jeans pocket and pushed the red button for silence. One small bit of control amid the chaos.
Then I looked toward the wreckage of the tennis court, where that woman and her daughter were sitting, hugging and crying a soft, barely audible cry, almost in harmony. I felt envy. I wanted to hug and cry too. I wanted not to be a retired newspaperman whose wife died last year, with grown son and daughter on the other side of the country. But then I felt glad my kids were on the other side of the country.
I wanted to reach out to those crying strangers on the tennis court, to give and get help, but it seemed so impolite to intrude. Then I realized how silly it was to worry about that.
I got my feet under me again and took a few clumsy steps toward them. I got as far as the mangled chain link fence, hung onto it, and stood there absurdly shy, hoping they would look up to acknowledge me. They didn’t.
Then I felt cold water seeping into my shoes. I looked down and saw what looked like a spring bubbling up under my feet. It was the broken waterline that had fed the drinking fountain at courtside.
I stepped away from the water and called out.
“Hello? Are you two OK?”
Mom looked up with a start, eyes wide, mouth open.
“I think so,” she said. She was still breathing hard. So was I. She gulped, gasped and gave her daughter a squeeze. “Are you okay, Melissa? Does anything hurt?”
Melissa, about 10, kept her face buried in her mother’s shoulder at first, clinging as hard as she could. Then she looked up, panting too, and looked at her right leg. There was a red scrape along her outer calf. Melissa scowled at her scrape, but she looked like an active kid who survived worse, most summers.
“I’ve got a first aid kit in my car,” I said. “Is your car around here?”
“No,” mom said. “We walked down here from Wilson Avenue. I home school Melissa.”
“I live over that way too, on Larrabee Street. I drove over here with my dog.”
“Where’s your dog?” Melissa asked.
“I don’t know. She ran away when the earthquake hit.”
“Is that what it was?” Melissa asked.
“I guess so,” mom said. She saw that her daughter was shivering, and hugged her tighter. Mom was shivering too, and I realized they were both cold in their lightweight black polyester sports gear.
“I’ve got a blanket in my car too. Let’s get it, and put a bandage on that scrape, and head back home.”
We made our way the few steps from the courts to the parking lot. I looked over to the spot where the broken pipe had wet my feet, expecting to see a growing pool of water. There wasn’t one. The water wasn’t flowing.
I worked my way to the back end of my car, stepping over the protruding chunks of asphalt. I pulled out my key again and pushed the button to pop the trunk. Nothing. Keyless entry not working. It actually took me a few seconds to find the old-fashioned keyhole I had never used before. To my relief, the trunk opened, although the lid seemed a tad askew.
I grabbed my old green blanket and handed it to Melissa. I found the first aid kit and handed it to mom.
“I’m Susan,” she said as I put the little plastic box in her hand.
Neither one of us smiled.
Susan popped open the plastic box: a roll of gauze, a tube of antiseptic ointment, adhesive bandages and tape, and some alcohol wipes sealed in foil. She ripped one open. Melissa shrank away, the way my kids used to do when they saw me coming at them with one of those things.
She handed the wipe to Melissa, who took it in one hand while she grabbed her mom’s hand hard with the other. She clenched her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and gave her scrape one fast but firm swipe with the alcohol. They had done this before.
“Once more,” Susan said. Melissa swiped again and handed the lightly bloodied wipe back to her mom, who applied a layer of ointment and taped some gauze over the scrape.
I pulled a brown nylon duffel bag out of the trunk. Inside was an old hooded black sweatshirt that I handed to Susan and some foil-wrapped granola bars that had been in there for a while.
There was also an empty plastic water bottle, a couple of lightweight nylon jackets and a birding guide. Elsewhere in the trunk was a hank of nylon rope, a roll of paper towels and a fire extinguisher. I put it all in the duffel. I left the birding guide inside the duffel too – useless but comforting. Then I got my compact field glasses and flashlight out of the glove compartment.
“Let’s head home,” I said.
Melissa had gone back for the tennis gear. She rounded up the stray balls and put them in her own duffel bag, along with the two racquets. Useless, but comforting. She slung the bag over her shoulder and rejoined us.
I wondered when they would use those tennis racquets again.
John Stark retired from The Bellingham Herald in 2014. His fictional account that imagines imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a Cascadia great quake is funded by the Riverstyx Foundation and also appears online at bellinghamearthquake.info.
Stay alert: 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.
Take action: 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.
Do you have emergency supplies in your car, in case the quake hits when you’re way from home?
Suggestions include blankets, first aid supplies, drinking water, emergency food, flashlight, extra batteries, extra clothing, rain gear, pet food.