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 9 - Day 1
I said so long to Joe and Carlos and went for a walk, to get a better idea what we were up against. I started walking north and east, up the hill, looking for a vantage point over the city, but everywhere my view was blocked by houses and trees. People were out in the streets, picking through rubble or just standing in shock. A few houses had twisted and tumbled. Chimneys were piles of brick.
I got to Highland Drive and followed it until I reached the Western Washington University campus. To my relief, I could see that the retrofitted older buildings as well as the newer structures had not collapsed, although trees were down and streets and sidewalks were twisted.
In another couple of minutes, I stood in the plaza in front of the Performing Arts Center. From this spot I had a sweeping view to the north and west, out over Bellingham Bay and downtown.
I realized I still had my birder’s binoculars in their case on my belt. I used them for a closer look.
The big column of smoke that billowed up in the minutes after the quake had mostly died down, but from the heights I could see orange tongues of flame flickering. It looked like a gas main had ruptured and burst into flames somewhere near the bay, setting buildings ablaze nearby. But by now the buildings were embers, and there was little or no gas flowing through the main – just enough to feed those flickering flames.
Farther away, inside distant Squalicum Harbor, a new column of black smoke churned up. A tsunami had tossed sailboats and fishing vessels onto floats and breakwaters, and the floating boathouses were torn and twisted. One of those boathouses was on fire. No sign of the fireboat.
I wondered if it had been disabled by the wave.
I could see that logs, trash and other debris had washed all the way onto the railroad tracks at the north end of the bay.
Sandy Point and the Lummi Peninsula had likely gotten the worst of the tsunami, too far away for me too see. But the people out there should have had a few minutes’ warning after the quake hit. I hoped they had a chance to get out of harm’s way.
To the south, a couple of smaller sailboats were aground on what remained of Boulevard Park.
The prolonged shaking had liquefied the park landfill, originally built as a site for long-gone industries, and much of the park was covered with shallow sea water. The base of the pedestrian stairway that descended to the park over the railroad tracks had crumbled, and the wooden structure had twisted and sagged atop the wreckage of a freight train that was covered with rocks and a shamble of wooden beams. I could see locomotives lying on their sides, and a tangle of boxcars and flatcars.
Could have been worse, I thought. Could have been oil cars.
But then I saw that most of the debris atop the train was the remains of the apartment and condo buildings built on the edge of the bluff over the park, and the tracks. Had the people inside those buildings been able to flee before their homes crumbled over the cliff?
With my binoculars, I could see rescuers working amid the mess, trying to get people out.
Exhausted as I was, I thought of heading down the hill to help. Then I saw still another column of smoke, coming from my own neighborhood. I decided to head back home. Even though my house was still standing, I didn’t feel as though it was much of a refuge from the seismic maelstrom around us. But I had nowhere else to go, and I needed to get back to my dog.
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.
What’s the scope of danger when the big one hits?
Although nobody can say for sure how bad a great quake – one that measures 9.0 or greater on the Richter scale – will be, it could trigger widespread devastation locally. It could disrupt power, water, sewer and communications systems for months. Emergency relief agencies may not be fully mobilized locally for weeks.
In the Northwest, the death toll could be 10,000 or more, the vast majority from the tsunami expected to strike counties on the Pacific Ocean coastline. But deaths and injuries will also occur in Bellingham and Whatcom County, and there is significant tsunami danger at Sandy Point and the Lummi Peninsula.
Across the region, property damage could total $70 billion in property damage. Are you ready? The Washington Department of Natural Resources offers a comprehensive look at the danger from a great quake at dnr.wa.gov.