Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We forced the door open to stand on the broken ceiling’

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 4 - Day 1

As we walked along 19th Street toward Wilson Avenue, we saw dozens of people in the streets. The newer houses were still standing, with windows shattered and chimneys toppled. A satellite dish had fallen from somebody’s roof and bounced into the street.

But the quake showed no mercy to lovely older homes, the pride of the neighborhood. Some had twisted, their walls torn asunder. Some had slipped right off their foundations and were leaning precariously.

Utility poles were askew, and power lines crisscrossed the street.

Neighbors were going from door to door, checking to make sure everyone was OK. A 50-something woman in a blue ski jacket ran up to us.

“Susan! Melissa! You’re OK! I was just at your house, pounding on the door. Your car was parked out front, I thought you were home and when nobody answered I thought something horrible had happened. I was trying to find somebody to help me knock the door down…”

She and Susan had themselves a long bear-hug.

“Most folks seem to be okay, but we don’t know how many people might be trapped in some of those houses that got wrecked,” Marge said. “A couple of people cut their feet on broken glass. God, what a mess.”

She started to cry, then stifled it.

“We don’t know how to get help,” she said. “None of the phones are working. We’ve got to get organized and see who needs to be rescued…”

Big One

Just then we saw a column of gray smoke coming from someplace about two blocks away. In seconds, the smoke turned from gray to black and got a lot bigger.

We could hear people yelling, screaming for help that wasn’t likely to come.

There was a much bigger column of black smoke visible farther away to the north. It wasn’t as big as the volcanic-sized cloud I remembered from the pipeline disaster, but it was still pretty scary.

Marge sat down on the curb and started to cry again.

Then Susan turned back to me.

“That’s our house, right there.”

I followed her and Melissa up to the front door of the old white craftsman. She turned her key in the lock and pushed. Then pushed again, harder. Then both of us pushed together, the door popped open, and we stumbled inside, with Melissa right behind us.

The windows and old plaster walls were cracked and broken everywhere, with some plate-sized slabs of the stuff smashed on the floor. But the place seemed to be hanging together. Maybe she’d had her home fastened to the foundation, like I did.

The floor we were standing on was actually the broken ceiling that had shaken apart. The bookshelves were bare. The books were in heaps on the carpet, in a pool of water from the aquarium that had crashed off its stand. Melissa walked over and picked up two dead goldfish – the fancy kind. Then she dropped them. That got to her. All at once a teardrop was hanging from the end of her nose.

Susan headed for the kitchen. She had to step over the refrigerator lying on its side, blocking the entrance. She went to the sink and turned the tap, needing to confirm what we both knew. There was a dribble of water, then nothing.

“What are we going to do, Mommy?” Melissa asked.

Susan just locked her in a hug and I slipped toward the door. Nothing I could do for them now. I had my own house to worry about. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Don’t forget your sweatshirt,” Susan said.

I turned. She pulled it off and handed it to me with a “thanks.”

“Thanks to you two. I’ll probably see you guys around.”

Around what? I thought. Around a cooking fire? Or waiting in line at a Porta Potty? How long would it take before somebody came along to set up a few of those?

“I hope you find your dog,” Melissa said.

“I’m hoping she’ll be at home to greet me,” I said.

She was. Before I got home, in fact, she came running at me and jumped up, paws on my shoulders. It was something I trained her not to do six years ago, when she was half-grown. But now, I was glad to see how much she cared.

She led me to the front door of our little home. I was relieved when my own door opened without too much extra effort. Inside, I smelled two things: whiskey and gas. I saw the shattered bottle of Canadian Club on the floor in front of the shelf where it had been sitting next to a stack of old National Geographics, which were now helping to soak up the liquor.

Leaving the door hanging open for ventilation – needlessly, since most of my windows had broken – I went around to the gas connection at the back of the house. Here was something I was prepared to face: The gas company had sent a little warning notice in one of my gas bills, telling me to be ready to shut off my gas in an emergency. I had a big wrench stashed nearby in a garbage bag, just like the gas company had suggested. I retrieved it and tried to turn the valve. I wasn’t really surprised when it wouldn’t budge.

“Hold on there, Bill. I got what you need.”

It was Les, the indispensable neighbor – the guy with the pickup truck who actually seemed to enjoy hauling off other peoples’ yard waste on a Saturday afternoon. Now he had a wrench and a sledge hammer. He bustled right in and set to wrenching and banging until the valve was closed.

He smiled his familiar smile, but for the first time in his life he was faking it. His smile couldn’t hide the fear we both felt. More than fear. Terror.

“Wow,” he said. “I guess they weren’t kidding. The big one. I didn’t think it would be this bad. There’s no power, no gas, no water, no phones. The radio stations are off the air. Some people are starting to lose it. We gotta come up with a plan, get things organized.

“Yeah,” I said.

His knuckles were skinned and bleeding.

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

Is your home ready for a big quake?

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety offers tips at disastersafety.org/earthquake.

▪  Get your home bolted to its foundations if it was built before the mid 1970s.

▪  Secure hot water heaters, refrigerators and other appliances or furniture that could fall. Hardware stores have earthquake straps. Take steps to keep breakables from falling off shelves.

▪  Cuts from broken glass are among the most common earthquake-related injuries. When a quake happens at night, people jump out of bed in the dark and cut their feet on broken glass. Keep shoes and flashlights by everyone’s bedside.