Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘I never thought it would be this bad’

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Preparing for resiliency after a great quake

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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 1 - Day 1

“I never thought it would be this bad.”

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody say that since the big quake finally hit us.

I know I’ve said it to myself a few thousand times.

We all knew it was coming. The local paper, the Seattle TV stations, NPR – they all ran reports with the same buzzwords: Subduction zone. Magnitude 9. Tsunami. The reports all ended the same way, with experts warning us to be ready. Stockpile food and drinking water, they said. We all shared that stuff on Facebook, and then joked about it.

But I did keep a couple of big plastic jugs of supermarket drinking water in the basement. I had a good flashlight with extra batteries. I stashed away three boxes of Minute Rice and some backpackers’ foil pouch dinners from REI.

Then, just last week, I was down in the basement trying to box up all the stuff that needed to be thrown out or given away. I saw a jagged hole in the cardboard box that held my rations. Inside the box: shredded packaging, scattered grains of rice, rat droppings. I hadn’t known there were rats in the basement. I had been meaning to buy replacement rations, and a big strong box to put them in.

It was about 10 o’clock Tuesday, a cloudy April morning with a bit of sprinkle. I was walking my shepherd-lab Daisy along a crushed gravel path in Fairhaven Park, just a few steps from the parking lot. I had her leash in one hand and my phone in the other, scrolling through Facebook posts with my thumb, ignoring my surroundings. Then Daisy snapped me out of it, flattening her ears and making a weird growling noise I had never heard before. At that same instant, every seagull along the bay to the west began to shriek. It reminded me of one summer’s night years ago, when a loud thunderclap overhead had jolted all the sleeping seabirds awake.

Then there was a sudden thump and a vibration under my feet. Wow. Earthquake!

It was a single jolt, nothing like the vibration I remembered from 2001, when the Nisqually quake rattled the windows for several seconds.

The seagull racket intensified. Daisy was straining at her leash.

Big One

Then the ground lurched sideways. I fell hard and landed on my right side. I dropped the phone; I let go of Daisy’s leash without meaning to. She ran away. I managed to get onto my hands and knees as the ground beneath me heaved in slow-motion, watery swells, rolling me first one way and then the other.

Then the ground softened. I felt myself sinking into soil that had seemed dependably solid seconds before.

Why doesn’t it stop? When will it stop? Oh my God, it seems to be getting worse.

I could hear horrible creaking, groaning, ripping noises to the north, where my house and my neighbors’ houses were being twisted and shaken.

The chain link fence around the park tennis court was rippling and shuddering, making metallic grinds and squeaks. A woman and her daughter had been on the court hitting tennis balls. Now they were on all fours, scrambling in the middle of a gaggle of fluorescent orange balls that rolled and bounced one way, then another, as if alive.

The big Douglas fir trees at the edge of the park had come to life too, lurching, twitching, flailing as the earth heaved beneath them.

The park’s asphalt parking lot pulled apart, then came together, grinding and disintegrating. I saw my blue Honda sinking down, front end first into the debris. The whole park seemed to be sliding toward Padden Creek.

Is this how I’m going to die?

No. The shaking tapered off. It stopped. I lay on my stomach gasping. There was one more shudder. Then stillness.

The earth, at least, was still. But there was a lot of noise. All the crows and seagulls were crying. The robins, the jays. Every dog was barking. I hoped one of them was Daisy. I called her name a couple of times, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Mixed in with all that I heard humans. Distant shouts. Screams. People calling their kids, their dogs. And a chorus of car alarms.

Then I heard the first explosion, off to the northwest. A loud, low, massive boom, but not too close. On any other day, it would have been alarming.

Still on my hands and knees, I looked around for the cellphone. It was sitting in the dirt, 10 feet from where I fell. No service, it said. I wasn’t surprised. But it still showed the time: 10:05 a.m.

In just a few minutes, everything changed. Forever?

We thought it would be like other disasters – a big November windstorm, maybe, with more broken glass. The power might go out. We might be in the dark for a day or two until the guys in hardhats got around to restring a pole here and there. We would sweep up the shards on the kitchen floor, make plans to earthquake-proof the kitchen cabinets for next time, and everything would go back to normal.

Or maybe it would be as bad as a big hurricane on the Gulf Coast. Some homes would be destroyed. Power would be out for days. National Guardsmen would put up big green tents with kitchens, and we would stand in line for a plate of beans or something. Medics would bandage our wounds, give antibiotics to sick kids. The President would hand out bottles of drinking water. We would be on TV.

It hasn’t been like that.

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.

Today’s tip

What should you do if you’re outdoors when the big one hits?

Drop to the ground so you don’t get knocked down. Move away from buildings, trees, powerlines or anything else that might fall on you. Then, protect your head by covering it with your hands.

There’s more online:

Ready Check from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at ready.gov/earthquakes.

“Drop, cover, and hold on!” from the Southern California Earthquake Center at shakeout.org/california.