Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘When do you think the power will come back on?’

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 22 - Days 3-5

After a day or two, I had stopped reaching for the light switch every time I stepped into a darkened room. After another day or two, I learned to do as much as I could during daylight, and to sit or lie quietly after nightfall, without reading or doing much of anything. I had a good supply of batteries for my flashlights and electric lantern, but I had no idea how long that supply would last, or how long it would need to last.

I had a small, cheap rechargeable flashlight with a solar panel and a hand-crank generator too. Its beam wasn’t exactly military grade, but I could do a little reading with it every night to help me get to sleep. Psalms, mostly. But my dog Daisy didn’t seem to approve of reading. She would pester me until I turned the light off.

After a few days I had regretted inviting that dog to sleep with me, as I had done on the first chilly night after the quake. I had no way to wash the sheets, and pretty soon it smelled like I was sleeping in a dog bed, which of course I was. But after days with no hot shower, I wasn’t exactly a sprig of lavender myself.

“When do you think the power will come back on?” That question came up every time two or three of us were together. It was just another example of life in a city suddenly bereft of the communications we had taken for granted. We couldn’t just check into the Puget Sound Energy website to get an estimated time for power restoration.

We did get a bit of internet access at times, giving us information about the extent of the disaster in the big cities. Relief agencies had set up satellite wi-fi hubs in three or four places around town. We couldn’t all use them at once, but those who did use them were able to relay word to the rest of us. The Bellingham Herald, the city of Bellingham and FEMA had sites we often turned to, but nobody was prepared to commit to a date for getting our lights back on.

We got information in old-fashioned ways too: There were a couple of leaflet drops from Homeland Security helicopters. Here too, we weren’t getting any promises. But those leaflets did do a pretty good job of explaining the enormity of the disaster: This wasn’t like a November windstorm, where the big problem is reconnecting a few hundred, a few thousand homes back to the power system. The whole system had been disrupted. Some generating stations had been knocked offline. The natural gas supply to plants that relied on that fuel had been cut off. Transmission lines that carried the power from the generators to cities had been damaged or destroyed. The laborious task of rebuilding the poles and lines that served our neighborhoods could not even begin until that was done.

The leaflet promised us nothing except weeks of darkness.

At one neighborhood gathering, a guy who was retired from BPA told us not to get our hopes up.

Big One (3)

“This is even worse than you think,” he said. “Hell, the power companies don’t have enough inventory on hand to replace a few dozen poles and insulators after a bad ice storm. They have to get other companies to ship that stuff to them in an emergency. But right now, every utility from Vancouver Island to northern California is having an emergency. Even if they could get an army of linemen in here tomorrow, they would have nothing to work with. Get used to the dark, folks.”

Back in the neighborhoods, people were wondering whether to siphon gas out of their cars to keep their home generators running, or keep the gas in the car just in case. Neighbors were pooling their fuel resources, sharing their generators. That enabled them to keep their freezers chilled so they could ration their frozen food instead of having to eat it all at once.

In the first few days after the disaster, I had almost forgotten about my own car, stuck in a sinkhole at Fairhaven Park. I didn’t need it, and I couldn’t see any way to get it out. Les and I went over there one afternoon in hope of siphoning the gas, but somebody had beaten us to it.

Our neighborhood patrol shooed off would-be gas thieves every night, but the patrol couldn’t be everywhere, and a lot of fuel got stolen. A couple of people lost their generators the same way. After that, people took turns keeping watch on the generators still operating. We needed them to charge our phones.

We would run down our batteries in never-ending attempts to find service. We weren’t looking to surf social media. We just wanted to get messages out to friends and family. But we were overwhelming the limited amount of capacity that had survived the quake. I did manage to get a four-letter text out to my daughter eventually: IMOK.

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

Will we be able to communicate?

After a great quake, normal communications systems are likely to shut down. That means everything from radio and television to cellphones and internet. For how long? Estimates vary, but be prepared for the worst.

In the first few hours or days, some vital communications may depend on HAM radio operators.

When cellphone service comes back online, it won’t be at full capacity. If everyone tries to use the system at once, which is highly likely, service won’t be available. Because of the way the system is structured, it may be easier to get a call through to someone outside the quake area, rather than to your relative across town. Your out-of-area contact may then be able to relay a message to someone back in Whatcom County.

A solar power charger for your phone could come in handy, even if you never need to survive a great quake. A small one is a lot cheaper than most phones.

Emergency management experts recommend keeping calls to a minimum. Rely on short text messages rather than voice calls that put a bigger load on the system. In the immediate aftermath, they ask us to be content with the simplest of messages: IMOK.

Tips for dealing with power outages are online at ready.gov/power-outages.