Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We could lose the whole neighborhood!’

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 14 - Days 1 and 2

As I walked back into the house longing for sleep, I could see the glow of backyard campfires scattered around the neighborhood, and hear the distant sound of a strumming guitar and a harmonica. And a bongo drum. Bellingham strong. We were trying to make the best of it, most of us.

I had another sleeping bag, but I figured my accumulation of old blankets and quilts would do just as well. Daisy was pacing, wondering why I was attending to none of our evening rituals. She followed me into the bedroom and I slapped the bed, encouraging her to hop on up.

She stared for a minute, wondering if it was a trick of some kind, but then she accepted the invitation.

Daisy had been my wife’s idea, after the kids moved out, just before we found out about the cancer. I had never been a dog person. After my wife died, I learned to appreciate Daisy’s company, although I had never let her sleep with me before. On this night it seemed like a good idea. She seemed to agree.

The bed felt cold, but between the two of us we warmed it up and I fell into oblivion, followed by a dream. My wife and children were trapped in a fallen house. I could hear them pounding on the walls, but I couldn’t get them out. I tried to yell for help, but I couldn’t. They kept pounding, pounding. Emerging into half-consciousness, I realized somebody was pounding at my door, yelling about a fire. Daisy was out of bed and barking.

I lurched up, afraid it was my house ablaze. It wasn’t.

“Bill!” I heard Les shouting. “The Johnsons’ house is on fire. We need help! We could lose the whole neighborhood!”

I staggered out from under my warm quilt, put on a coat and headed out the door. Daisy tried to follow but I slammed the door on her. Sally and Jake were crawling out of the tent. The house just a half-block away was already a giant bonfire, lighting up the faces of those who stood watching. Others scurried around trying to keep the fire from spreading to the houses next door.

Two men were on the roof of the closest house, brushing off embers as they fell.

No firetrucks were in sight. I heard sirens in the distance, but they were likely headed elsewhere: Other fires lit the sky to the north, the west, the east. My terror at that moment was the worst yet. I would have run, if there had been anywhere to run to.

Big One (7)

Then a big black pickup truck rumbled up. It was loaded with blue water barrels. They must have pumped it out of the creek somehow. People with plastic buckets ran up to get them filled.

The first guy threw his bucket of water right at the burning house.

“Don’t be an idiot!” I recognized Joe’s shout.

Pretty soon, the bucket brigade got more or less organized, and men and women were doing their best to wet down the smoking walls of the houses next to the inferno. We had to wet down those people too, their wet clothes shielding them from the heat.

After about a half hour, the burning house collapsed and began to burn itself out, just as we used up the last of the water. I slumped down and took a seat on the running board of the truck.

A red plastic cup half full of hot mint tea materialized under my nose. Two ladies almost old enough to be my mom were dragging a big picnic jugful of the stuff, dispensing it at random.

“Sorry it’s not coffee,” one of them said. “All we had was beans, and we had no way to grind ‘em. We put a lot of honey in it.”

“God bless you both.”

“Look at that poor family,” the other woman said.

Until then I hadn’t noticed the man, woman and boy huddling together at the edge of all the commotion. The Johnsons. I remembered seeing the little boy, a second grader maybe, headed past my house to the school bus stop. Other neighbors gathered around them.

With Sally and Jake camping out, I still had a spare bedroom. But how many more mouths could I feed? I was a little ashamed to be thinking about that while homeless neighbors stood outside in the cold and dark. I was relieved to see them walk off with another young couple from down the street.

I saw Joe trudging off into the dark.

“Joe! Want a cup of tea?”

“What I want is sleep,” he said as he walked over.

“It’s not caffeinated,” one of the tea ladies said as she handed him a cup.

His hands were shaking as he took it and gulped it. “Thanks. That was good.”

“Any idea what happened?” I asked.

“Yeah. They fired up their wood stove, but the chimney was cracked from the quake. Set the house on fire. They’re lucky to be alive.”

I wondered if they felt lucky. I was alive, and I didn’t feel lucky.

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

How will you heat food and water?

Planning to rely on your wood stove for heat after a quake? That might be a bad idea. A cracked chimney can leak flames that can set your house ablaze. Lighting up your home with candles is also a risk.

Many fires break out after an earthquake. Even if a fire truck gets to your house, there will be no water in the hydrants. Do you have a fire extinguisher? When did you have it recharged? Is one enough? Do you have one in your car?

Talk with your neighbors about fire risk. Everyone plan to put their fire extinguishers out in front of their houses after a quake. Plan on responding immediately to fire yourselves.

The University of Rochester Medical Center offers fire extinguisher information online at urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia.

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