Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday’

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 17 - Day 3

In some ways, the strangest thing of all was the lack of information. We were all used to being saturated in it. Now we were almost in the dark, on our own, cut off. A lot of people had lived like that for hundreds of years, but for us, it made everything that much more terrifying.

What little information we were able to get was the opposite of reassuring.

In the first two days after the quake, the main source of information was satellite radio, which a few people had in their cars. People gathered around those cars listening to news reports from CNN and other news networks. The news was all about the devastation in Seattle and Portland, with secondary focus on coastal towns devastated by the tsunami, from Vancouver Island to northern California. The information seemed sketchy, with wild estimates of casualties and pointless discussion of how this quake would rank among the great disasters in human history.

Local media were getting reports online, but few had power for their cell phones. Nobody wanted to waste the power on social media other than to check in safe. The early texts from The Herald were helpful, but not satisfying. The news was all scary.

The key to sanity was to stay busy, and we didn’t lack for things to do. Once we got the water back to the house, we set to work on a firepit.

Jake dug a shallow hole and rimmed it with bricks pried up from my backyard walkway. Sally went out with the shopping cart and came back with scraps of lumber and dead tree branches. I cut the branches into shorter lengths with my pruning saw, filled the pit and set an oven rack on top for a grill.

I had a half-bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, and we got a blaze going without too much trouble. I set my largest pot over the fire and filled it with creek water. It took awhile, but once the water was steaming, we took turns sponge-bathing behind the plastic tarp.

Afterwards, we were all shivering. We bundled up and sat on folding chairs from the house, waiting for a smaller pot of water to heat up for coffee.

“Let’s cook out here as much as we can,” I said. “We can save the stove fuel for indoors on rainy days.”

“Is it too early for lunch?” Jake asked. “Let’s make some more spaghetti.”

Big One (4)

“Maybe we should just have graham crackers for lunch,” Sally said. “We need to stretch what we have.”

“True. But we might as well eat the rest of the hamburger before it spoils,” I said. “Let’s brown it in the pot, put in a can of soup and some pasta, and thawed-out green beans, and call it lunch.”

“That sounds awesome,” Jake said.

As the meat sizzled in the pot, I became aware of a woman in the alley, watching us over the fence. A girl about 12 years old was standing next to her, dirty face streaked with tears.

“That smells good,” the woman said.

We all looked at her. Nobody smiled.

“I saw her and that kid at our house yesterday,” Jake whispered.

Now the woman was crying too, red-eyed and sniffling.

“We haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday,” she said. “We’re living in our truck. We…”

“Did you finish up what you took from my house yesterday?” Jake snapped.

Sally glared at him.

“We have to give them something,” she said softly.

I knew she was right, but part of me didn’t care about what was right. It’s easy to donate to the Food Bank when you have a pantry full of food and a credit card in your wallet, but now, every bite these two strangers might eat was a bite I might not get. Wasn’t I already sharing my food with Jake and Sally?

“We haven’t got much, but we can spare a little,” I said.

I opened the alley gate and invited them in. They sat quietly, waiting to be fed. Once the meal was ready, I ladled five meager portions of chicken soup-pasta-hamburger stew into bowls, and gave everybody half a graham cracker.

“So you said you’re living in your truck?” I asked. “Did your house get wrecked?”

“We had no house,” the woman said. “We were living in a motel on Samish Way but the manager threw us out a week ago.”

She said this as if it were the kind of thing that happens to lots of people.

“When Daddy gets out of jail, he’s going to fix the truck and we’re going to go back to Minnesota,” the girl said.

Nobody reacted.

We finished our bowls in a couple of minutes and sat in silence. I was hoping the woman and her child would thank us and leave, but I doubted they would.

“Can we stay here, just for tonight?” she asked.

Sally and Jake were both looking at me. Sally’s face said yes. Jake’s said hell no.

“The thing is, we don’t have much food,” I said.

“I bet if we ask around, we can get people to share a little with us,” Sally said to me. “Some people probably have extra.. How can I say no when I’m sitting here in your yard, eating your food?”

Jake just rolled his eyes.

“OK,” I said. “I have a spare bedroom. Stay as long as you need to. I have no idea what we’ll be eating in a day or two.”

“Thank you so much!” she said, weeping. “Can I go back to the truck and get a few things?”

“Whatever.”

Jake looked at me, then at Sally, then back at me as mother and daughter walked off.

“So they get the bedroom while we stay in the tent?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with the tent?” Sally asked. “I’m not ready to sleep indoors yet.”

“There’s still the sofa if you want it,” I told Jake.

In a few minutes, the mother and daughter returned carrying plastic shopping bags stuffed with odds and ends of clothing and a dirty gray teddy bear. They also had two ratty green blankets and two small cans of pork and beans.

“We didn’t have a can opener,” she said as she handed the cans to me.

“My favorite brand,” Jake said with a glare.

Sally had already put another pot of water on the fire.

“Maybe you two would like to wash up a little,” she said.

“That would be great,” said the woman.

“Then maybe you could help me find some more firewood. I’m Sally,” she said, extending a hand.

“I’m Darlene and this is April,” the woman said, taking Sally’s hand awkwardly.

“Hi April,” Sally said with a big fake smile. “Is your birthday this month?”

“No,” April said.

It had been one of those no-win situations. If I had sent Darlene and April on their way, I would have hated myself. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was also likely to regret letting them move in.

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

Are you ready to share?

Once you think you have enough supplies stored for your household, think about how you will react when you’re confronted by people who weren’t ready: the clueless, the poor, the people who lost their food stockpile when their house burned down. What about tourists? Who’s going to feed them, if you don’t? Be sure to prioritize those who need it most. Healthy adults can survive for days on half of their normal calories, or even without food. Children, pregnant women and those with injuries and illnes, will be more vulnerable.

FEMA and the Red Cross have a booklet online about food storage online at rdcrss.org/1Ov3XHQ. Download and print now for important information to put in your emergency kit.

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