Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘The bridge was down and the muddy creek was rising’

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

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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 3 - Day 1

Melissa, her black ponytail bobbing, led us back east the way she and her mother had come.

As we descended the remains of the trail downhill towards the creek, we walked on white petals scattered by a couple of wild cherry trees shedding their blossoms. We had to climb over the trunk of an old alder tree, rotten at its core that had shattered and fallen.

After a few more steps, we saw more evidence of the quake’s power – unimaginable power we no longer had to imagine.

The bluff above had slipped into the creek, diverting the water across the trail we were trying to follow.

“It doesn’t look like we’re gonna get home without getting our feet wet,” Susan said.

My feet were already wet. I took the first steps into the shallow, muddy water.

“Wait,” Melissa yelled. She handed me a long stick she’d grabbed along the trail. Smart kid. I poked the stick into the water ahead of me to make sure I wouldn’t step into a hole or a soft spot. Melissa and Susan grabbed sticks too, we got across the creek, scrambling up through the loose dirt, fallen branches and chunks of crumbly sandstone on the other side, working our way toward the bridge that crosses the creek into the trailhead parking lot just south of Old Fairhaven Parkway.

The creek had been at about medium flow – not the torpid trickle of August or the surging November runoff that brings the chum salmon home to spawn. But it seemed to be rising, flowing faster, even though the sky had barely sprinkled all day. I wondered if the quake had widened the creek’s outlet from Lake Padden. Or maybe it was being fed by broken water lines – or sewer lines.

“We should probably hurry,” I said, without mentioning the lake upstream.

Now we were approaching what had been a strip of sidewalk between the parkway and the recently built apartment buildings to the south. Seeing the sidewalk slabs jumbled on the slope was not astonishing at this point.

As we threaded our way among the rocks, concrete chunks and fallen tree branches, we saw some of the apartment dwellers outside. Some were gathered in twos and threes, talking quietly. Others were sobbing, shouting, yelling obscenities. A circle of six people stood holding hands, eyes closed in prayer. Three college-age guys were sitting on the grass drinking cans of Kulshan.

Big One

A maintenance guy with a big pipe wrench was working on the gas shutoff valves outside one of the buildings. Car alarms were still blaring here and there. The buildings themselves seemed mostly intact, but many of the windows had shattered and pavement had buckled. A chimney had toppled onto a white minivan, smashing its windshield.

We heard distant sirens, getting closer, but then fading away. A helicopter pounded the air overhead, then another and another, flying south.

In a few more minutes we were at the new bridge that was supposed to get us over the creek crossing. It had been a handsome span with rusted metal rails, but it had slipped off its footing on our side of the creek, and the end of the bridge was below us, in water that was unmistakably getting faster, deeper and muddier by the minute.

“Let’s get going,” Susan said. She and Melissa worked their way down the bank that had been newly replanted with small native trees. I followed. The water in the creek looked to be knee-deep now.

“Hold my hand,” Susan said. Melissa grabbed her mom’s hand tight with her left hand, keeping her walking stick in her right, with the tennis duffel still slung over her shoulder.

“Let me help,” I said, grabbing the duffel and slinging it onto my shoulder along with the duffel I already carried. I also took the blanket I had given her and wadded it up under my arm.

The three of us headed into the water – first Susan, holding Melissa’s hand, then me. I stepped on an invisible, slippery boulder and fell backwards into the water.

I scrambled up and kept moving before they had a chance to think about whether they should turn back to help me. I had let go of the blanket, but I snagged it with my stick and retrieved it before it could make a getaway.

Soon the three of us were on the opposite bank, sitting for a minute. The nylon duffels hadn’t taken on too much water, but the blanket was pretty soggy. I kept it, thinking it still might come in handy if we ever got it dry. Melissa’s leg bandage was soggy too. Susan stripped it off and applied a new one.

We scrambled up the opposite bank and got to the parkway, which was cracked and buckled. Tough going for passenger cars, or for the WTA bus stopped at a bus shelter and going nowhere for now. The passengers were out on the street wondering what to do.

We crossed the parkway and headed towards Wilson Avenue.

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

How well do you know your neighborhood?

After a quake, your normal transportation routes may be blocked: bridges, streets, even footpaths may be blocked or disrupted. Creeks could change course. Your phone won’t be working to navigate through a detour. If you don’t have a paper map of the community, print online maps of the areas you frequent and keep them in your car and emergency kit.