Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘A much shorter list of people who had food to share’

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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 20 - Day 3

Daisy and I spent a less-than-restful night on an air mattress in Gene’s little house. Daisy got up and barked a couple of times, but I didn’t see anything suspicious. I didn’t fall into a deep sleep until an hour or so before dawn.

When Gene nudged me awake for some reconstituted eggs, it was about 9 a.m. He gave Daisy some too.

“Sorry there’s no coffee,” he said. “I ran out the day before the quake and I never got to the store.”

“I’ll bring you some,” I said.

When Daisy and I got back to the house, Sally and Darlene were in the kitchen with April.

Darlene was stirring a pot of oatmeal. April was hard at work pulverizing coffee beans in the mortar. For the first time, I saw her smiling.

Jake was asleep and snoring on the sofa.

“So you guys decided to come indoors, then?” I said.

“I stayed in the tent,” Sally said softly.

A knock at the back door. It was Joe and Carlos.

“Everything OK over here?” Joe asked.

“Come on in, you two. We’re putting some coffee on.”

Big One (7)

“We’ve been out all night,” Carlos said as he eased into one of the wooden folding chairs I had pulled up to the kitchen table.

“Any trouble?”

“Not really,” Joe said. “But it wasn’t what you would call calm and quiet either. A few people sneaking around in the dark. They moved along when they saw us coming. But there’s a house a couple of blocks south of here that got broken into. I’m not sure when.”

“The door was busted in, nobody was there. Whoever did it cleared out all the food,” Carlos added. “Maybe it was the owners. I had to break down my door to get into my place…,” he trailed off.

Sally handed him a paper cup of coffee. He slurped at it.

“Who wants oatmeal?” Darlene asked.

“I hate that stuff,” Carlos said. “I’ll take a little. How are you fixed for food, Bill?”

“Not so good. There’s five of us here. We can stretch it out another day or two.”

Jake came in, eyelids still heavy.

“I’ll make more oatmeal,” Darlene said.

Sally appeared not to notice him. I handed him some coffee.

Sally shoveled down her own small scoop of oatmeal and got up from the table, looking at me.

“Let’s get to work,” she said.

I found a legal pad and a couple of pens and we set out across the neighborhood, going door-to-door to find out who needed what, and who had something to share. I dropped off a commuter mug of coffee at Gene’s on the way.

We decided to limit ourselves to the western chunk of Happy Valley, west of 21st Street – about what we thought we could canvass in a day.

Things weren’t as bad as I thought they might be, but they were none too good. Families were banding together, moving in with each other in some cases, sharing cooking fires and camp stoves and hauling water.

The water situation had gotten a bit better: People were filling rain barrels in the creek and hauling them out on pickup trucks, a job made easier by the dirt road improvised a couple of days ago. The rain barrels were set up around the neighborhood for people to share. There were several at the firehouse. The EMTs had a walk-in clinic too.

Food was a lot more spotty. Some people had pantries stocked with canned goods, pasta, rice – they were getting square meals. Other people were already down to peanut butter and crackers, handfuls of cornflakes. Parents with babies were frantic. They were improvising with dish rags and hand towels as diapers, but some of them needed formula.

We took down their addresses and told them we would do our best to get something to them.

In some blocks, everybody seemed to know everybody else, and they were taking care of each other. In other blocks, people were holed up in their houses, wary and more than a little panicky.

Most people wanted to know what was going to happen next, when help would arrive, when the lights might come back on. We had no information to give them.

A couple of people seemed to think we were looking for people to rob. They slammed their doors in our faces. Not unreasonable, I thought. Why should they trust us?

I was also glad to see a couple of helmeted cops on bikes, roaming the neighborhood. They wanted to know what we were up to. We told them. They checked our IDs and wrote down our names.

“Thanks,” I said. “Can you tell us anything? We’ve been on our own for three days, putting out our own fires, chasing bad guys. When is it going to get better?”

“Wish I knew,” one of the officers said. “We’re up against it same as you are. Things are messed up from Vancouver Island clear down into California. Lots of people need help, and there isn’t enough help for everybody. It could be awhile yet.”

At lunchtime, we dropped in on Gene. He was ready to reconstitute a pouch of dried beef stroganoff, but we just grabbed a couple of energy bars and headed out again. By evening, with a few blocks left to go, we had to stop. Or at least, I did. I had already walked too much.

We went looking for Joe and Les. We found them in Les’ backyard, sitting by the firepit with Les’ wife and teenage son, sipping on cans of Miller. Les reached into a paper grocery sack at his side and pulled out beers for Sally and me.

“We took some food down to the people in the apartments south of the parkway, and they gave us these,” Les said.

The two men had slept most of the day, and now they were ready to go out on patrol again.

“You two learn anything?” Joe asked.

I told him we had a list of people who needed help, and a much shorter list of people who had food to share. Several people had emergency generators, and had kept their freezers running for an extra day or two, but some had already run out of fuel. The rest would be done in a day or two. Joe rubbed his palm over his face.

“This is going to get pretty stressful in a couple more days,” he said.

Just then, we heard a loud, booming horn to the west, booming out again and again.

“What is that?” Sally asked.

“I think it’s the ferry,” 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

What would you do for fuel?

Fuel will be precious after the quake. How much propane do you have for your camp stove or backyard grill? How much firewood? How long will you be able to operate that emergency generator?

With power cut off, gas stations won’t be able to pump fuel. If they have power sources, they will likely run out of gas quickly and resupply may take days or weeks. How much gas is in your tank right now?