Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We mobilized cleanup squads every few days’ for trash

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 24 - Day 21

Three weeks after the quake, we were becoming adjusted to life without the comfort and convenience we had taken for a birthright.

We now had our little strategies for life without power, running water, central heat, and flush toilets The results weren’t pretty or comfortable, and nobody was happy. But we got by. Most of us.

At my house, our little group of strangers had become a team. Darlene and her daughter April, who had been homeless when the quake hit, seemed especially eager to pitch in on whatever chores needed doing. April learned to help take care of Daisy – playing catch with her, brushing her down, making sure she had a little food and water.

Jake and Sally, the students from the university, had the most stamina for hauling wood and water. It was plain they were no longer a couple, but they got along.

Nobody came up with a good work-around for trash disposal.

With fuel supplies at a minimum all over the region, there wasn’t enough to keep a fleet of trucks rumbling down the alley every week to make our garbage disappear.

Even if the garbage trucks had come, what could they have done with their loads? Bellingham’s trash had been leaving town for distant landfills by railroad. The railroad had been shut down by landslides for the first few weeks, and was only now getting up and running. Heavy equipment and other relief essentials were moving in by rail, and shipments of garbage weren’t likely to be a priority any time soon.

The good news: We weren’t producing anywhere near as much trash. No junk mail, no accumulation of bottles and cans, no boxes and plastic packaging. No t-bone steak bones or banana peels.

Big One (5)

The bad news: There was a lot of debris from the quake that had no place to go. We piled it up on street corners and vacant lots, waiting for the day when somebody would come along and make it disappear, like trash had always disappeared before. And we did have some trash to deal with as we emptied our cupboards and ate up the emergency rations that trickled into town.

After three weeks, I had six big 30-gallon trash bags stashed in corners of the house where nobody would trip on them. But some people put their bags outside, where they got quickly ripped up by raccoons, or by the abandoned dogs and cats that roamed the alleyways. There was no animal control to call either.

It was not unusual to see rats scurrying around – but the dogs, coons and cats likely kept their population in check. And we had nowhere near the usual amount of food waste for them to scavenge.

Neighbor Joe told me he and Charlie were on patrol one night when they spotted a guy dumping his garbage down the creek bank just off Old Fairhaven Parkway.

They told him to clean it up. He flipped them off. Charlie pulled his gun. The guy cleaned up his mess and drove off.

“Charlie was way out of line, crazy dumbass,” Joe said.

But Joe, Charlie and the rest of the patrol couldn’t be everywhere. Plenty of trash did get tossed and scattered around. We mobilized cleanup squads every few days. There was no way to get rid of what we collected, but we figured one big pile was better than lots of little piles. It was something to do.

Keeping the neighborhoods clean was simpler than keeping ourselves clean. We’d been stepping into hot showers every day, all of our lives. In the first few days after the quake, we burned up a lot of wood and bottled gas for hot water to sponge ourselves down, rinse our pots and pans, and wring out socks and underwear.

“If we keep this up, there won’t be a stick of wood to burn anywhere in Bellingham in a week or two,” Jake said.

We learned to make do with cold water. When it was sunny, we would put a black plastic garbage bag over a bucket or two, and the water would get tepid after a few hours.

We devoted a lot of effort to firewood-scavenging. Backyard fences, wooden trellises and patio furniture were consigned to the flames, along with the wood from the homes shattered in the quake. Parks and greenways were not spared. We dragged out fallen trees and cut them up with pruning saws. When those were gone, people cut down the standing dead trees. At first, some people used chain saws. Those who didn’t run out of fuel decided to save their limited supply for emergencies, and the sound of axes and handsaws replaced the roar in the woods.

We were degrading the green spaces that had made our city special, deforesting the landscape around us, just like the people in impoverished countries. But like them, we couldn’t think of better options.

Also like impoverished people everywhere, we learned to make do with very small fires – just enough to warm us a little, warm up a little water, cook up a bit of something if we had it. When you have to cut wood by hand and haul it home in a bundle on your back, it becomes a precious thing. In the first few days, people gathered around big backyard bonfires, but once people realized they were facing a long haul, they got quite stingy with their wood.

A haze of wood smoke hung over the neighborhood when it wasn’t breezy.

“Once this is over, I may never go camping again,” Sally 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.

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