Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘It’s the sitting around that’s driving me crazy’

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 25 - Day 28

Another week had passed. I was strolling down to the Alaska ferry terminal with Darlene and her daughter April for a grocery run.

I could see that the line was already stretching from the front door of the terminal building all the way out to Harris Avenue.

We took our places at the end of that line without complaint, and waited to see what relief workers and volunteers would put in our shopping bags.

Waiting in line for food and other essentials had become part of our routine. The convoys arriving at the terminal by sea were mostly headed south to Seattle and Tacoma, but they also dropped off a few cargo containers for the locals on their way out of town.

We no longer worried about starving to death. We learned to be grateful for canned goods, instant rice, powdered milk, crackers, instant coffee. Fresh fruits and vegetables were a precious memory. So was fresh meat. It had not taken long for the local outdoorsmen to thin out the city’s once-thriving population of deer, rabbits and squirrels. The backyard deer roasts were fun while the supply held out.

On this day the line was moving quickly. After the initial post-quake chaos, the relief workers had cobbled together a distribution system that kept the line moving with some semblance of rationing, so that most people were able to get what they needed and nobody hogged too much.

We had been given punch cards entitling us to our share of what was available.

There wasn’t much chitchat as we waited. Morale was low. Each passing day of hardship and uncertainty was taking its toll.

Big One (6)

“I miss real food and I miss hot showers,” the man in line in front of me said to a woman at his side. “But it’s the sitting around that’s driving me crazy. I used to complain about having to drive that damn truck 50 hours a week. Now I’m going crazy with nothing to do but stand in line, rinse out socks and underwear in a bucket, lug jugs of water from the fire station, try to keep the kids from killing each other…” his voice trailed off.

“It’s the uncertainty that’s bumming me out,” the woman said. “Before, we knew tomorrow would be like today. Get up, feed the kids, get them on the school bus, go to work. We always knew what would happen next and we had fun every weekend. Now we never know what’s going to happen next, and nobody can tell us how long we’re going to have to live like this.”

Those two pretty much summed up what everybody was feeling.

Sometimes, supplies ran low before we got to the front of the line. This day was better. We trudged back up the hill with pork and beans, powdered milk, soda crackers, canned corn and two chocolate bars.

As we got to my front walk, a man stepped out in front of us from behind a clump of bushes.

“Hey babe,” he said quietly, looking at Darlene.

“Daddy!” April said with a gasp. Darlene gasped too.

“Bobby!”

“Not expecting me, huh? Looks like you’ve got a new thing going. Is this old man the best you could do?”

There was no humor in his voice or in his stare, directed at each of us in turn.

He was gaunt and grimy, clad in an old green army coat and torn blue jeans.

He reached out, grabbed the grocery bag from Darlene’s hand, and looked inside.

“Nice,” he said. He picked out one of the chocolate bars and started to eat it.

“We’ve been living here since the earthquake,” Darlene said, her voice quavering. “Bill’s let us stay here, along with some other people. You could stay here too, if Bill doesn’t mind.”

“Hell no,” Bobby said, to my infinite relief. “I take care of my own damn family. Me and Richie have a camp set up in the woods down by the creek. Get your stuff together and come on.”

Darlene didn’t move.

“Did you hear me, woman?”

Bobby made a grab for April’s hand. Darlene yanked the girl away from him. He pulled back his right arm to take a swing at her. I swung my grocery sack and felt a can of beans thud against the side of his head, but not hard enough. He lunged at me and I was flat on my back on the ground, his hands circling my throat as I tried to push him away.

April shrieked. Darlene shouted for help. I heard someone coming out the front door. Then there was a thud, and Bobby collapsed on top of me as his grip loosened.

“Oh God!” Darlene sobbed.

Gene was standing over me and Bobby with the broken end of his walking stick in his hand.

Gene was still hobbling from his busted foot, but he and Darlene managed to roll Bobby off me.

Bobby lay on his back, blinking, breathing hard. I did the same.

I got up before Bobby did, but my back had taken a wrong turn, and it hurt to move.

“Maybe you should take April inside,” I said to Darlene. I didn’t have to suggest it twice.

“Now what?” Gene said, balancing on his good foot.

“First, let me find you a new stick,” 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 will happen to the people in the Whatcom County Jail after a great quake?

Given its current condition, the jail will likely be damaged in a great quake. But the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is prepared to find alternative secure housing, depending on what buildings are safe and suitable after a quake.

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