Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘Cheers turned to groans as truck after truck passed us’

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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 21 - Day 3

My worn-out legs didn’t want to move, but I had to get down to Fairhaven to see that big blue Alaska ferry come in. Pretty much everybody else in south Bellingham had the same idea.

Some people walked. Others rode bikes or ATVs. Some cars and trucks full of people found their way down there too – some streets were still passable, and the tsunami debris that had covered Harris Avenue at the mouth of Padden Creek had been cleared away: Somebody must have been expecting this.

A crowd of well over a thousand people milled around near the foot of Harris Avenue. We all assumed – correctly, as it turned out – that the ferry would be stuffed full of relief supplies instead of its usual cargo of tourists and southeast Alaskans on shopping sprees.

Up to this point, every Bellingham crowd I had ever experienced had been a festive one. This crowd was anxious and fearful, on the edge of desperation. I could hear small groups of men, women and children, talking about how hungry they were, voicing the hope that a meal, maybe even a hot one, would materialize in the next few minutes.

While the big brick ferry building had suffered some tsunami damage, the dock and ramp remained in working order. But it seemed to take forever for the Columbia to ease up to the ramp and begin the unloading process as the crowd edged closer. People in orange vests formed a cordon to keep us at a distance.

When the first Alaska National Guard truck rolled off, flying U.S. and Alaskan flags on its front fenders, we whooped and yelled. We kept on whooping as that truck and several others rolled past us, followed by flatbeds carrying excavators. A few uniformed soldiers in gray-and-white arctic camo got out to help clear a path onto Harris Avenue, and the convoy turned left and rumbled up the hill without stopping.

The cheers turned to groans and cries of protest as truck after truck passed us. The troops in the cabs gave us smiles and waves, but nothing else.

Finally, one truck stopped and a lieutenant with a bullhorn got up on the tailgate.

Big One (8)

“Thank you for your patience,” he said. Only a few people booed.

“We will be distributing some supplies here in Bellingham in the next few minutes. This initial convoy is headed toward Seattle, where the need is greatest.”

That triggered a louder burst of boos that he ignored.

“The ports in Seattle and Tacoma were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami,” he continued. “In the next few days, Bellingham will become a staging area for relief supplies to the region. Barges and military vessels will be offloading here and at the Bellingham shipping terminal. Truck traffic through the city may be heavy at times. We will, of course, also provide what we can to the residents of Bellingham and the surrounding area. We will be distributing emergency rations and bottled water to you once the main convoy has offloaded.”

It took awhile, but finally, four civilian cargo trucks and a news rig from a Juneau television station rolled off the ferry and into the parking lot, along with one military truck.

I went to chat up the news guys. They said they were doing a story on the Alaska relief corps, which included a few guys my age who remembered Alaska’s 1964 megaquake and were especially anxious to pitch in and do what they could.

I recognized a guy getting out of one of the cargo trucks. He was a purse seiner named Bob who split his time between Bellingham and southeast Alaska. I had interviewed him a time or two, back in the day, doing stories about the salmon harvest and moorage rates at the harbor.

I took a couple of steps toward him, and he recognized me.

“Big story, huh?” he said with a grin.

“Too big,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Well, we figured Bellingham was going to need all the help it could get, so the fishermen got together and filled up these trucks, and here we are.”

“God bless you,” I said. “This is the first help we’ve gotten from anybody, as far as I know.”

“As soon as we’re done here, we’re going to head over to Squalicum to see if anything’s left of our boats,” Bob said. “Based on what I’ve heard, we’re not optimistic.”

A half-dozen soldiers materialized to supervise the distribution. They joined the fishermen handing out cases of bottled water, freeze-dried meals, canned goods, instant rice. There were a few cases of disposable diapers and toilet paper, a couple of portable generators, and some fuel.

Bob’s cheery demeanor faded as he looked at the crowd.

“Four truckloads isn’t gonna be enough,” 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

How soon will relief supplies get to Whatcom County in any meaningful quantity?

The swath of devastation from the big quake could stretch from Vancouver Island to northern California. Bridges and overpasses will be down and landslides will block rail and highway links that supply us with food and other essentials. Big cities to the south and north will likely be full of desperate people.

In our fictionalized account, we imagine the Alaska ferry arriving with supplies, just three days after the quake. But the quake is expected to cripple the ports of Seattle and Tacoma – the lifeline for Alaska. Alaska won’t be able to help us much. They will likely experience food shortages of their own.

Port of Bellingham officials say they expect the small-scale local shipping facilities to be usable after the quake – although nobody knows for sure. If that does turn out to be the case, it is conceivable that large amounts of relief supplies will be offloaded here for shipment south.

If local shipping terminals are unusable, vessels could still anchor in the bay for offloading.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer a list of emergency supplies to have an hand online at cdc.gov/disasters/earthquakes/supplies.html.