Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘Tell us where you live, we’ll do our best to help you’

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

More from the series


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 12 - Day 1

We were alive – but for how long? The hot pasta had warmed our insides, but I could see my breath as I sat at the kitchen table with my new acquaintances, draining my mug and wishing there was another bottle of wine.

Their names were Jake and Sally. They were from Bothell. They had been together for two years. They were seniors, majoring in environmental science at Huxley. They had been pulled from the wreckage of their rental home. They had seen their roommate bleed to death on the ground. Just yesterday, their lives revolved around major requirements, GRE, lunches at Viking Union, afternoons in the lab and evenings in the library, relieved by the occasional Saturday night beer blowout. That life had vanished with no warning. They had no way of knowing when or if it would resume, or what would happen to the plan they had sketched out for the rest of their lives.

“Now what?” Jake said.

“You can stay here as long as you need to,” I said. “It’s just me and Daisy.”

At the sound of her name, Daisy stopped licking the paper plates we had set down for her on the floor, but only for a second.

“I have a spare room with a bed. I’ve got extra sleeping bags. I don’t think we’ll freeze to death. I’m more worried about food and water.”

Sally’s eyes widened.

“If we can hold out a day or two, we’ll be OK, won’t we?,” she asked. “They’ll get the power back on, and the water…”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said. “I do have some food in the pantry, but it probably won’t get us through more than a few days, even if we eat light. The supermarket’s probably cleaned out by now.”

I made a quick inventory: Three cans of chicken rice soup, two small cans of baked beans, a half-box of granola, a canister of oatmeal, most of a five-pound bag of flour, a couple more pounds of pasta and jars of sauce. A box of graham crackers. Half a bag of tortilla chips. Stuff in the freezer that was already thawing: a couple of pints of chocolate ice cream, one more pound of hamburger, a bag of green beans, some toaster waffles. Assorted condiments.

Big One (5)

“I feel weird about eating your food,” Sally said.

“It’s not charity,” I said. “I’m thinking maybe you two could help me and Daisy get through this. Is there any food in your house that you could bring here?”

“Yeah,” Jake said, without much enthusiasm. “Let’s go over there and see what we can find.”

“I can’t go back there right now,” Sally said.

“I’m exhausted,” I said.

“No problem,” Jake said.

I handed him a couple of grocery bags as he headed out the door. That was too optimistic.

He was back in just a few minutes, scared and shuddering.

“There were like, about 10 sketchy people there, digging around,” he said. “By the time I got there, the food was already gone. They were, like, looting the pots and pans. I saw a guy walking away with the toaster. And our bikes are gone.”

He took a deep breath and sat down on the sofa. Tears were dripping down his cheeks. He bit his lip and sniffled. Sally sat down next to him and started crying too as they embraced.

“I’m going down to Haggen’s to see if there’s anything left,” I said, picking up the shopping bags Jake had dropped.

I felt a little better after my meal. The legs were still shaking, but I didn’t have far to go.

When I got to Haggen’s there was a line out the door. The store manager and a couple of employees were handing out plastic handbaskets to the people waiting.

Joe, Charlie and Carlos were there, informally supervising.

I got in line. I recognized some of the anxious faces of the people waiting for food, but there was no conviviality. Some people whispered. Most were silent. We watched with envy as people ambled out another door with bags full of supplies.

After a half an hour, a flustered woman wearing a pink floral terrycloth bathrobe came out of the store with only a thawing pepperoni pizza.

“How am I supposed to get by with this?” she yelled to no one in particular.

“You don’t want it?” said a guy behind her, who had emerged with nothing. He grabbed her pizza and stalked off with it. She shrieked at him.

The line broke down and people started surging toward the door.

“Hold on everybody!” Carlos shouted. “Everybody chill. No need to panic. We’re going to let you all in. Don’t take more than you need, and don’t freak if you can’t find any food. If you’ve got nothing to eat at home, talk to me and Joe here, tell us where you live, and we’ll do our best to help you.”

Inside, the manager and crew had swept broken glass into piles, which was a good thing.

People were crawling around in the dim glare of the emergency lights in search of whatever they could get, which wasn’t much at this point. Plastic bottles of mustard and ketchup. Tubes of toothpaste. Shampoo and conditioner. Tampons and pads – although there weren’t many of those left. Toilet paper was nowhere to be found.

I had hoped to find a spare bottle of fuel for the stove, but those were probably the first thing to go.

I headed for the baking supplies. The flour and mixes were gone, but I grabbed a couple packs of colorful birthday cake candles, thinking they might come in handy as fire-starters. Then I found three foil packets of yeast. I put them in my pocket, remembering that I had some flour in the cupboard. Then I scored a plastic tube of orange decorator frosting. Empty calories – but calories.

Remembering my guests, I picked up a couple of toothbrushes, too: Muppet-themed. Then I found a quart bottle of bleach. You can use bleach to sterilize water.

Joe and the store manager were handing out first aid supplies to people who needed them. Carlos was bandaging up cuts and scrapes. Nobody wanted to bother taking my IOU at this point.

Joe gave me a look and a nod. I walked over and clapped him on the back.

“What a shitshow,” he 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

What’s in your pantry?

The stocks of food and other essentials at local supermarkets will not be enough to feed us all for more than a day or two. After the quake, it will likely to be too late to go to the store, even if the store is up and running.

Until recently, emergency agencies advised everyone to keep a three-day supply of food at home. That’s a great start, but it won’t be nearly enough after a catastrophic quake. Try to plan on surviving on your own food stash for three weeks, and emphasize canned or instant foods that won’t require a lot of fuel to cook. Plan to share with those around you.

The Department of Homeland Security offers sanitation and powerless cooking tips at ready.gov/food. And the Red Cross offers food storage tips online at redcross.org.

The Bellingham Food Bank suggests that as you rotate your emergency food supplies yearly, you donate them to the food bank where they’ll be quickly consumed.

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