Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘Things won’t get out of control unless people get hysterical’

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 8 - Day 1

The police SUV pulled into the parking lot and stopped abruptly. A police sergeant stepped out and gave the situation a quick scan.

About two dozen people had gathered at the door of the store. Now they were all watching the sergeant.

Carlos smiled.

“Freddie. Good to see ya, woman.”

Sgt. Freddie didn’t smile back.

“What are you and your friends up to here, Mr. Martinez?”

Just then, Joe and his crew came around the other side of the store, and Sgt. Freddie turned slowly to look them over.

“It’s OK, Joe,” Carlos said. “We’re in good hands. Freddie and my kid sister played basketball together at Bellingham High back in the day. She still gave me a speeding ticket my first day back in town after I got out of the army.”

“Look, ma’am, uh, sergeant,” Joe said. “We heard some people yelling and we figured there might be some trouble over here, looting and whatnot. We have some people from the neighborhood ready to keep the peace. We want to guard the building and pass out the stuff inside to people who need it.”

“I can’t authorize that,” the sergeant said.

“But maybe you could just accept it,” I blurted, startling myself. “If you don’t let us get involved, what’s going to happen? It’s going gonna to be dark in a few more hours.”

“Couldn’t you deputize us or something?” Charlie asked.

Big One

Sgt. Freddie rolled her eyes. She was a no-nonsense veteran cop, but the strain was still showing. I wondered if she had a family of her own to worry about.

“First of all, everybody needs to chill a little,” Sgt. Freddie said. “We’re all scared, but things won’t get out of control unless people get hysterical.

And you’re right. We do need citizens to assist law enforcement. We’re spread way too thin right now.”

“Tell us what you want us to do,” I said.

She glared at me for a few seconds.

“I just remembered why you look familiar. Go into the store and take statements from everyone inside,” the sergeant said. “Now let’s see if we can get things organized so people can get what they need from the store, for as long as inventory holds out.”

I went inside. The concrete wall on the south side of the supermarket had sagged in the quake, but it didn’t look like it was going to collapse any time soon – unless there was an aftershock.

All around the darkened store, I could see people still sitting on the floor – employees in their green shirts or aprons, and customers with their shopping carts and handbaskets. The floors were littered with cans of vegetables, tubes of toothpaste, cantaloupes, apples, oranges, rolls of paper towels – everything that had been on a shelf was on the floor. Some people looked stunned. Others were sobbing or trying not to. I could smell liquor and pickles – there was a lot of broken glass.

I had no pen or notebook. I walked over to the office supply section and helped myself to a pack of ballpoints and a steno pad.

I went over to a big, curly-haired woman who’d been bagging my groceries for maybe 20 years.

On a normal day she would be laughing and yacking it up with each customer. When I was in a hurry, I tried to avoid her line.

“Hi,” I said. “The police sergeant asked me to help her by getting statements from everybody. Can you tell me what happened?”

It came pouring out.

“Omigod, the whole place shook. Everything was rattling around, everything fell off the shelves. The windows broke, the lights went out, everybody was freaking, screaming. I thought it would never stop. Once it did stop, so many people were hurt, falling on broken glass. We have first-aid kits, but not enough of them. We were grabbing gauze and bandages off the shelves, bandaging people up.”

I realized there were still hurt people inside the store who needed first aid. I went out to enlist some of my neighbors.

Joe, Carlos and the store manager were talking things over with the people outside the store. Sgt. Freddie was there too.

“We haven’t got any power,” the manager said. “I’m afraid we aren’t likely to get power back on any time soon. We can’t make sales without electricity, but I can’t see much point in locking up while the milk and frozen food spoils.”

“Can you sell stuff for cash?” Charlie asked.

“I suppose so, but then what do I do with the cash? And how is that fair to people who don’t happen to be carrying cash today?” the manager asked.

“She’s right,” Carlos said. “Let’s go with IOUs. Get people lined up. We’ll take names and write down purchases, and settle up later. Honor system.”

“Making the best of a bad situation,” Joe added.

“I don’t know what else to do,” the manager said.

The people in the crowd seemed relieved.

“OK,” the manager said to the assembled people. “The store is a mess. Me and my people are going to go through and clean up the broken glass so nobody else gets hurt. Then we’ll escort small groups of people through the store. Please don’t expect to stock up for the week. We’ll hand out frozen foods, meat and dairy first.”

“Who’s got first-aid training?” I shouted.

Several hands went up.

“OK, can we let these people into the store right now?” I asked. “We’ve got some injuries in there.”

“Absolutely,” the manager said. “We’ve got some first aid merchandise in the store. Go ahead and take it.”

Word seemed to travel fast. A long line formed around the store within a few minutes.

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 if you are inside a store or other commercial building when the quake hits?

Ready.gov/earthquakes says to move to the end of store aisles. Get down on all fours and cover your head and neck with arms or other protection. Move away from windows and other possible breaking-glass hazards.

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