Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We were inventing a new neighborhood culture’

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 26 - Week 5

I was leaning on Gene and he was leaning on me as Bobby rose to a sitting position. He sat there staring at nothing and rubbing his head. Then he got up, seeming to notice us for the first time. By this time Jake and Sally were out on the front porch. Some of the neighbors were coming out, too, after hearing the commotion.

Bobby glared here and there, trying to look scary. Then he managed a sneer and started walking slowly south. Nobody cared to stop him.

Back in the kitchen, April was crying on Darlene’s shoulder. Darlene’s face was wet too. Sally was holding her hand.

“Is Daddy OK?” April asked, between sobs.

“I think so,” I said. “He’s gone.”

“He always comes back,” Darlene said through clenched teeth. “He comes back and messes up our lives. I always let him back in, because I didn’t know what else to do, you know? I didn’t think I had a choice. Living here with you people the last few weeks, nobody fighting, nobody hitting anybody, nobody drunk ... it’s like, maybe this is how things are supposed to be. Maybe this is how it can be for my daughter…”

For the next week, we were always looking over our shoulders for Bobby, but he did us all a favor and never reappeared.

As the days passed, we were inventing a new neighborhood culture that seemed to be a big improvement on the electric-powered isolation we had taken for granted before quake day. We got together to share meals. Afterwards we would sing and talk and even read to one another.

A couple of teachers who lived in the neighborhood organized activities for the kids – everything from story time to soccer games in the street. One of the teachers put me in charge of organizing a kids’ news service. We had no way of printing anything, but the older kids went out two-by-two to chat with people and find out what was going on in the neighborhood. When they met at the end of the week to read their reports, a few dozen neighbors would gather to listen.

Big One (7)

By now, we could also listen to the news from local radio stations, which had been knocked off the air by the quake for the first couple of days. Internet service was still not back to normal, and there was no morning paper, but reporters from The Bellingham Herald were reading their reports on the radio.

We got some grim local news: A few homes washed off their foundations in the Sandy Point tsunami. Massive rockslides in the foothills had obliterated some homes, although casualty estimates were sketchy. A few older downtown buildings made with unreinforced brick and masonry had collapsed. There were more than a dozen deaths, and a few people were still unaccounted for. Some older buildings were still standing, but had been too badly damaged for habitation.

Makeshift bridges had been put in place across the Nooksack River, helping to clear the way for a trickle of airlifted people and supplies from the big airport in Abbotsford, B.C. It also made it easier for our usual population of B.C. visitors to find their way home again. Some were stranded here in the days after the quake.

But our main obsession was electric power – the magic key to getting us back to our comfortable lives. We could see utility crews on the job – people from all over the country, called in to rebuild an entire region. But nobody was making any promises about when our lights might come back on.

I was glad I had spent a few bucks on a solar phone charger. It took awhile to get my phone anywhere near a full charge, but it did the job. I was soon exchanging texts with my son in Lafayette, Indiana, and my daughter in Houston.

At first, they both wanted to drop everything and come back to Bellingham to help me. But their lives weren’t set up that way. They both had kids and jobs. I told them not to worry, but they had seldom taken my advice and they weren’t about to start now. They were still seeing news updates from the Northwest, focusing on the most devastated areas, and they double-teamed me with entreaties to get out of town and come to live with one of them as soon as I could manage it.

Maybe I should have taken their advice, but I didn’t. Bellingham was my town. In my own small way, I was helping to keep it alive. If I had evacuated, my conscience would have bothered me.

When Jake and Sally had a chance to leave and get their lives back on track, they took it. It was the sensible thing to do. Other state universities were taking steps to make it easy for WWU students to transfer to complete their educations if they wished. Jake got into the environmental sciences program at Washington State. Sally said she didn’t want to go to a big school; she chose Eastern. They had stopped being a couple in the first few days after the quake. Sally, the hardier of the two, had been sleeping by herself in the tent all this time.

“I like to get up in the middle of the night and look up at the Milky Way,” she told me once. “You couldn’t do that here, before.”

Jake left first, getting a ride with a friend who was also bound for WSU. Sally gave him a perfunctory hug.

Two days later, it was Sally’s turn. Darlene and April left with her. Les and Joe had fixed Darlene’s truck. Darlene said she wanted to get as far away from Bellingham and Bobby as possible, and she offered to give Sally a ride to Cheney. Sally said maybe the three of them could share an apartment there for awhile and see what might develop for Darlene.

I hugged all three of them. So did Gene, who had come down to see them off. He was walking without a stick now.

We said we would keep in touch. People always say that when they leave, but in this case, we meant it.

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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