Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘They needed help, and they chose my door at random’

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 11 - Day 1

As I worked my way back to my south side neighborhood, the stress and fatigue hit hard. If I had focused on the fact that there would be no safe, warm refuge awaiting me at the end of my walk, I might have panicked. But I was too tired to panic.

I walked as fast as I could, but I had to stop to rest my old legs every time I passed a place to sit. I made it back to Larrabee Street somehow, but the rest of the daylight hours were a blur.

A house in the next block was on fire. I watched the flames roaring out of upstairs windows, then out through holes in the roof. Then the whole place fell in with a roar. The paint was blistering on the house next door. The wood started to smoke. Then it burst into flames. Two men with big red fire extinguishers braved the heat and sprayed down the wall. That slowed down the fire just long enough to save the second house. A pumper truck rumbled up, and the crew wet down the second house while also hosing down the flaming rubble of the first.

They emptied the truck in a few minutes, but it was enough. More people showed up with fire extinguishers to stand guard, but the threat of fire was over – for the moment. Before the truck drove away, I saw the firefighters loading a big bundle onto the truck – something wrapped in a blue plastic tarp. It was the body of the young man who had died in the rubble of that rental house. I felt my stomach seize up, and I walked home in a stupor.

Back at my house, I could hear Daisy whining and whimpering inside my bedroom. I swept up broken glass from the kitchen and living room as fast as I could, with my arms and legs feeling like bags of wet sand, and then turned Daisy loose. She was frantic with joy. She had left a puddle on the bedroom floor. Could have been worse. I took her out into the back yard, then went back in to mop up the floor. I could see my breath inside the house – not surprising, with the windows mostly broken.

I had some rolls of black mulching plastic in the basement. I got a hammer and nails and went from window to window, trying to seal out the chilly breeze. I had a few sheets of clear plastic for dust covers on some of my basement junk, and I wanted to tack up some of those too, to let the daylight in.

Wind gusts were fitful and they made for a struggle with the plastic sheets. I was cursing between my teeth when some guy I didn’t even recognize grabbed a flapping edge of the plastic to hold it down while I nailed. With two of us on the job, we got her done in just a few minutes.

He waved and walked off before I could introduce myself.

I filled Daisy’s food and water bowls, sharing some of my small stock of bottled water with her.

Big One (4)

As I stood in a daze, watching her lapping and gulping, I realized I was weak from hunger as well as fatigue, and I was beginning to shiver from the cold. I wanted and needed warm food, but I could not summon the energy to dig my old camping stove out of the basement. I put on a couple of extra sweaters, and pulled off my wet, muddy jeans. I replaced them with long underwear, a pair of flannel pajamas and nylon rain pants over those, trying to get warm.

It was getting dark inside the house. I had a kerosene lamp, an electric lantern and a good flashlight with extra batteries. I wondered if the power would be back on before all my batteries ran out.

I got out a bag of granola and found some milk in my darkened refrigerator. I was just digging into a bowlful when I heard a knock on the door.

It was the young couple who had been rescued from the collapsed house. Nobody had paid much attention to them after their rescue. They had no friends in the neighborhood, and they had wandered in a daze for hours. Now, as darkness began to fall, they needed help, and they chose my door at random. Daisy surprised me by not barking.

They stood there, shoulder to shoulder, wrapped in the same blanket. The woman spoke first.

“Our house is smashed and we…”

“I know,” I said. “I was there. Come in.”

They had been through a lot, but they were young, and they seemed to have a lot more energy left than I did. I could see their eyes fixated on the box of granola.

“I can barely move,” I said. “If you guys can get down into the basement, you could bring up my camp stove. I’ve got some hamburger in the fridge that we might as well eat before it rots. I’ve got some spaghetti and sauce too.”

I handed them a flashlight and they were down in the basement, fast. I could hear them banging around amid the all the stuff that must have fallen down or tipped over. Then they were back, with the stove and two bottles of propane. And the young man was holding a bottle of Rioja.’

“Your other bottles fell off the shelf and smashed on the floor, but this one landed on top of a life jacket,” he said.

“Do you guys feel up to doing the cooking?” I asked weakly.

In no time they found a pot and a pan. Bottled water was heating up in the pot, and the meat was browning in the pan. The spices from the spice rack were all on the kitchen floor, unbroken. The woman found the oregano and garlic powder, then put the rest of the little jars back in their places.

I found the corkscrew and tried to open the wine, but my hands were shaking. She took over and popped the wine open. My glassware had been reduced to shards, but she found three undamaged coffee mugs and portioned out the red Spanish warmth. An old memory of the great castle of Segovia popped into my mind.

It takes a long time to boil water and cook pasta on a little camp stove, and it occurred to me that this might not be the best use of our meager stock of stove fuel. But I really wanted a plate of hot spaghetti at that moment.

A few more minutes and we were all wolfing it down. Then there was another jolt, another shake, and the spice bottles fell back to the floor.

We gripped our mugs and held onto our plates to keep them on the table.

After what we had experienced, this little event didn’t faze us. This time, I got up and stacked the spice bottles on the floor next to the wall.

Clinking our mugs together seemed like the natural thing to do, even if we had only one thing worth celebrating.

“We’re alive,” I said.

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

Do you know that aftershocks are near-certain to occur after the big one?

A DNR report on earthquake risks in Washington state says during the first month after the Maule earthquake in 2010, Chile experienced 19 aftershocks larger than magnitude 6.0 (the largest was magnitude 6.9). Japan’s great Tohoku earthquake in 2011 was preceded by a magnitude 7.5 foreshock and followed by multiple aftershocks, the largest of which measured magnitude 7.9.

Aftershocks of that magnitude would be major events even by themselves. After a major quake, they could cause collapse of structures weakened in the main quake.