Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘Are people going to loot the supermarket?’

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 7 - Day 1

Joe opened the metal toolbox on the back of the pickup truck and pulled out a pump shotgun, ready to go find out what the yelling in Fairhaven was about.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“Getting prepared for whatever happens,” Joe said.

“Hold on a minute, Joe,” Carlos said. “Let’s think this through. If we bring guns, we might be the ones who wind up setting off a gunfight. People are pretty jumpy.”

“There aren’t enough cops to go around right now, and we’ve got no way to call them if there were,” Joe said. “The bad guys know that too. We’re going to have to provide the law and order ourselves. Sounds to me like there’s a ruckus at the supermarket, and it’s up to us to maintain law and order.”

“I hear ya, but we’ve already got one dead body on our hands. One too many.” Carlos said. “Let’s leave the artillery in the truck for now. We can get a group of people together and handle whatever’s going down. It’s not World War III.”

“Not yet,” Joe said. But he put the gun back in the truck box.

Then Joe turned to the gaggle of about two dozen people who had gathered to watch the rescue at the collapsed old house.

“OK, people. Here’s the deal,” he said.

“Whenever there’s a disaster, people run to the store to stock up, which they should have done beforehand, but that’s the way people are. With power out, the store’s gonna have a hard time selling things. People are likely to go crazy. We need to go down there with a group of people to keep everybody in line.”

“Hold on a minute,” I said. “Do you really think people are going to run down to Fairhaven to loot the supermarket?”

“Maybe,” Joe said.

“This is crazy talk!” the older woman said.

“Just a few minutes ago you were saying we should all stay here and take care of our neighbors. Now we’re supposed to form a posse to go looking for trouble?”

“She has a point,” Carlos said.

Big One

“Look,” Joe said, addressing the crowd again. “If we stand here scratching our butts for a few more minutes, that store could be stripped bare. I’m going over there to make sure that doesn’t happen. Who’s with me?”

He stared at Carlos.

“I’m coming, if you promise not to get crazy,” Carlos said.

Who else?” Joe asked.

Silence. It seemed absurd, but I couldn’t help thinking about an old Gary Cooper movie, “High Noon,” where nobody wanted to step up and help the town marshal.

“I’m in,” I said.

Joe gave me a hard stare.

“You might be a little old for this kind of thing,” he said.

“What kind of thing are we talking about?” I said. “We’re just going to walk over there and see if anybody needs help, right?”

“Right,” Carlos said, before Joe could answer.

Other men and women stepped up to join us.

“OK,” Carlos said. “Let’s go with you and you…” he pointed people out seemingly at random until there were 12 of us.

One guy had a pistol in a holster on his belt.

“Charlie, let me lock that cannon in the truck box for you while we take care of this,” Carlos said.

Charlie didn’t look pleased about it, but he handed Carlos the gun and holster for safekeeping.

“OK then,” Joe said. “We head north, then split up into two groups. Carlos leads one group west on McKenzie. I’ll lead the second group west on Larrabee. We’re gonna take it real slow, sneak up from two sides, until we get close enough to figure out what the hell’s going on.”

“Who elected you the boss?” somebody growled.

“OK, pal.” Joe said. “Take over.”

No reply.

“Radio check,” Carlos said, pulling a palm-sized two-way radio out of his coat pocket. Joe had one too. They worked.

Things started happening fast. We walked rapidly north three blocks. I was in the group with Carlos.

“You have a military background?” I asked Carlos.

“U.S. Army. First Cav. I helped liberate Kuwait, sort of. I was an MP. Never thought I’d have to liberate Fairhaven... Hey man, what’s your name?”

I told him.

“Carlos Martinez,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Okay,” Carlos said. “We’re gonna walk up nice and slow. We’re not charging in like the cavalry. We don’t want to freak anybody out.”

As we got near the store parking lot, a Bellingham Police SUV rolled into the parking lot with lights flashing.

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 kind of public safety issues will we face after a quake?

The biggest public safety concerns will be dangers from debris, downed power lines and fire.

People who have studied disasters say find that looting is rare. Opportunistic burglary actually dropped by a third in cities hit by Hurricane Sandy. Vigilante behavior can increase danger.

Public safety those issues will be manageable if people keep their heads and look out for each other.

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