Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We have no way of reaching their parents right now’

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 10 - Day 1

As I wandered back south, not paying attention to where I was, I found my path blocked by a crowd of parents and children. I was at 15th and Douglas, Lowell Elementary School.

Before the quake, school officials had asked parents not to rush to their children’s schools after any disaster. The idea was to make it easier for trained school staff and emergency responders to handle the initial crisis.

I figured parents would fall into two groups: those who never got the message, and those who would ignore it. I’m a person who tends to respect those in authority, but if my kids had been in school at the time, I would have gone to them.

Now there were surprisingly few parents milling around. Some parents probably couldn’t get to the school, no matter how much they wanted to.

The 103-year-old red brick building had held up surprisingly well, thanks to its 2008 seismic upgrades. That cost millions, but it was money well-spent. Before that upgrade, a firefighter friend of mine had told me he dreaded the thought of having to dig through the rubble there someday.

Teachers had the kids in an orderly group on the asphalt playground. Some of them were already clutching parents, some standing or sitting alone. There was none of the poking and pushing and joshing around that would have been normal for a group of kids. They had been stunned into silence.

Teachers with clipboards were checking off names as they released students to parents or their stand-ins. I didn’t see anyone badly hurt, but I heard crying – the soft kind of crying from kids who had been crying awhile. I saw paramedics for the first time – two of them, bandaging a few knees and elbows but mostly just helping people feel as though everything was going to be OK. I saw no ambulance. They must have walked over from the fire station.

Then I saw Judy, a former neighbor who had moved north to a bigger house as her family outgrew their home near me. She was clutching her six-year-old son in one arm and her nine-year-old daughter in the other, sitting on the wet ground, slumped against the chain link fence, her eyes clamped shut, the tears still flowing.

“Judy? Can I help in any way? Anything….”

It startled her. But she recognized me. She had been in the library as a parent volunteer when the quake hit.

Big One (3)

“Oh Bill, I don’t know. What are we supposed to do now? It was horrible, everything shaking, books dumping off the shelves, computers falling on the floor, file cabinets tipping over, kids screaming. I just stood there. Then Mrs. Johnson started yelling, ‘duck and cover, duck and cover’ and we did. I pulled one little girl over and held her underneath me. I thought it would never stop.”

“Can you leave now? I can at least walk you home.”

“Thanks, but we just live a couple of blocks away. I guess we better get home and see what’s … “

A teacher with a clipboard interrupted.

“Judy? I see you’re listed as the emergency contact person for Mike and Joey Ruiz. We have no way of reaching their parents right now. Their grandma usually picks them up at school, but she hasn’t shown up yet today.”

“They both work at BP,” Judy said. “God knows when they’ll get back here. I know where their grandma lives. I can take them there.”

“Can you keep them for awhile if Grandma’s not home?”

“Sure.”

“Great. If grandma shows up later, we’ll send her to your house.”

Judy and her husband lived just a few blocks south of the school, on my way home. Before we started walking, I pulled some tissue out of my pocket, and Judy and I wiped tear-stained cheeks and runny noses. The children seemed to find this reassuring.

In a few minutes we were at grandma’s house, but she wasn’t home and her car was gone.

Judy’s own home had weathered the quake, but a couple of homes in the immediate area were twisted out of shape and no longer inhabitable. People were out in the street in small groups, talking, arguing, crying.

“Let’s go inside and have a snack,” she told the kids.

I said goodbye and headed home.

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 your children are in school when the big one hits?

Every school in Bellingham and Whatcom County has an emergency plan. John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, encouraged parents to get a copy, read it and ask questions.

Families are also advised to have their own emergency plans. Do your children know what to do – and not do – if the house starts shaking? Where will your children go if you are not available to get them? Have you updated emergency contact information? Have you talked to your emergency contact people about what you would like them to do in your absence?

School and emergency officials also acknowledge that communications may be limited or non-existent in the immediate aftermath of a really bad quake.

The Bellingham School District emergency procedure information is available online at bellinghamschools.org.

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