Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘Nobody there can give us an answer about when any help gets to us’

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 15 - Day 2

The overcast sky was beginning to glow a bit in the east as I trudged back home. When I got there, Jake and Sally were sitting on the stoop, wrapped in their blanket again.

I wanted to go back to sleep, but I doubted I could.

“You guys hungry?”

They didn’t need to answer. They just followed me inside. I set out some food for Daisy, thankful that I had just bought a big bag of it.

The freezer was a freezer no more. I took out the box of toaster waffles. They had been in there for months, since my grandkids’ last visit the previous fall. They were a sad sight, fragile in their thawed state. I fired up the camp stove and set them down carefully on the little grill. They smelled good and they got crispy pretty fast, and a little black around the edges. There were six of them – two apiece. I set them on paper plates and got out a tub of margarine and a bottle of syrup.

“If we had coffee, this would be the best breakfast ever,” Jake said.

I had beans, but no way to grind them. Or did I? I thought of the small mortar and pestle I had used to grind whole spices during a short-lived attempt to master Indian cooking. I rummaged around in my overstuffed kitchen junk drawer and there it was.

It took us a few minutes, but we managed to pulverize enough coffee to fill a filter cone and brew three small mugs. I had to open the last jug of water to make it.

“You know what would be good? A fire pit,” Jake said.

“Yes! We could scrounge wood from the park,” Sally added.

“Or from wrecked houses. That old lumber burns pretty well,” I said. “But first, let’s get some water. We can set up a fire pit, heat up some water, wash ourselves and our dishes.”

Big One (2)

I had a small hiker’s water pack, a couple of quart water bottles, and two filthy white plastic buckets I used in the garden. I figured if we took turns, we could get two five-gallon buckets from the creek to the house, but it was going to be awkward.

Then, as we headed out the door, I spotted Charlie, one of the wannabe vigilantes I had met the day before. He was wheeling his own two plastic buckets up the street in a Haggen’s shopping cart, moving slowly to keep the sloshing to a minimum.

I waved at him.

“Could I borrow that cart when you’re done with it?”

“You got it,” he said with a grin. “It’s not mine.”

I followed him to his house to help him unload his water.

“You guys have everything you need?” he asked, as I wheeled the cart away.

“We’re getting by,” I said. “But we’re going to be out of food in a couple days.”

“Some people are already up against it,” he said. “Come on over here around dinner time. Ralph’s got a freezer full of venison that’s got to be eaten. We’re going to build a fire and start cooking.”

“You know, there’s lots of venison walking around town.”

“There’s going to be a lot less of it a week from now,” he said.

Sally and Jake joined me in the walk to the creek, just south of the parkway. We couldn’t get the shopping cart all the way down to the water, but it would be a pretty short haul from the creek to the gravel path that led to Fairhaven Park.

Half the neighborhood seemed to be at the creek, filling containers. We weren’t the only ones with a shopping cart. Some had toy wagons. Kids were splashing in the water, cold as it was. I thought of leaking sewer lines and wondered if they would get sick, and whether they could get medical attention if that happened.

I felt a tap on my arm. It was Susan, the woman I met in the park so long ago. Yesterday.

Her daughter Melissa was at her side.

“You doing okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, thanks to my new friends here.”

Jake and Sally were getting the water buckets settled into our shopping cart.

“How about you?”

“We’re OK,” Susan said. “We moved the VanBurens in with us this morning. They’re in their 80s and they need help. It gives Melissa something to do. Kids are lost without their electronics, you know?”

“They said they would teach me how to play card games,” Melissa said.

At that moment, two guys in orange vests and hard hats came down to the water hole.

“Listen up, people!” one of them shouted. We all did.

“We’ve got a backhoe up there and a truckload of gravel, and we’re going to put in a quick-and-dirty road so people can get pickup trucks in to haul out barrels of water and get it where it needs to go. We’d like you to finish up filling your buckets and then clear the area so we can get to work.”

We did as we were told.

I stepped up to the second hard hat man. His eyes were red-rimmed and weary.

“Any idea what kind of shape the freeway is in?”

“The overpasses are either down or not safe,” he said. “But you can detour around those. The problem is the bridges. We’ve got the Skagit on the south and the Nooksack on the north. We spent half the night rigging up a span over the Nooksack, good enough to get some supplies in here if there were any supplies coming south, which there aren’t yet. Canada’s got its own problems. The Skagit’s not going to be so easy. Maybe the military can do something, once they get around to it.”

“Wow. With all there is to do, why are you even here?”

“Well, people need water. Not everybody can lug a bucket up and down the street. And we want the fire trucks to be able to draw water here too. Anyhow, we’re almost out of diesel, and we figured we could get this chore done with what little we have.”

“When do you expect to get more fuel?”

“We don’t expect to. We have some satellite phone contact with FEMA, but nobody there can give us an answer about when any help gets to us. We’re on our own for awhile.”

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 much water should you store for an emergency?

FEMA recommends one gallon per person per day. That’s 84 gallons for a family of four, if you want a three-week supply.

Fortunately, Bellingham borders on two freshwater lakes and is crisscrossed by creeks. Do you know how to purify surface water? You could boil it for a minute – but you’re going to need your fuel to cook. Outdoor supply stores sell a wide range of filtration systems meant for campers, as well as purification tablets.

You can also purify water with unscented household bleach that contains 5.25 to 6.0 percent sodium hypochlorite. Clorox says to first remove suspended particles by filtering or letting particles settle to the bottom. Pour off clear water into a clean container. Add 8 drops of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Allow the treated water to stand for 30 minutes. Properly treated water will have a slight chlorine odor. If not, repeat dosage and allow the water to stand an additional 15 minutes.

There’s more information online at ready.gov/water.