Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘I knew I would come back to Bellingham. It was my home.’

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 27 - Epilogue

After more than a month of chaos and upheaval, Daisy and I were alone in the house again. It might have been unbearably lonely, but in our post-disaster culture, I was seldom alone. People kept dropping in to pass the time, share a bite of Spam, or even a sip of wine as it began to become available again. When nobody dropped in to see me, I got up and dropped in on somebody myself.

Joe, Carlos and I carried on now like old war buddies. We had nothing in common and disagreed about everything – politics, sports, religion, even the weather. But none of that seemed very important. By mid-May, we were taking turns cranking my little radio between innings of the Mariners games. They were having an OK season, for a team that had to play its entire schedule on the road.

I did miss Gene. A few days after Sally’s departure, he told me he was moving to Cheney.

“What a coincidence,” I said with a grin.

He left me a foil pouch of spaghetti and meatballs – the last of his stash.

Not long after that, I was on the front sidewalk looking out at the sunset at the end of a long late spring evening. There was a glare in the sky – a glare I had not seen in weeks. The lights were back on in the big condo buildings in Fairhaven.

Pretty soon everybody was outside looking at the spectacle. A couple of people whooped. In general, though, the reaction was subdued.

It would be several more weeks before our homes would light up too, and it didn’t happen all at once. Power would come on for a few seconds or minutes, then shut off again. After three days of that, the power supply became reliable again.

Big One (8)

Not long after that, it occurred to me that I could once again listen to jazz on my stereo – something I had done almost constantly in earlier times. I popped in my favorite: Grant Green’s “Idle Moments.” I lost myself in it for the thousandth time – and then I heard people singing in Les’s back yard, a few doors down. I turned off the stereo and headed there.

Things were still a long way from normal. Gasoline remained scarce, and natural gas service was being restored a lot more slowly than electricity. On the radio, we were repeatedly warned not to reopen the gas lines into our homes until our system had been inspected by professionals – and that was going to take awhile. I was glad we were now in the warmer part of the year.

The temporary bridges over the rivers north and south of us had limited capacity. Traffic also had to detour around fallen overpasses on I-5 and other highways. Putting all that back together would take years. A getaway weekend in Seattle or Vancouver was not an option, for the time being.

Money was tight: A lot of people had not been working or getting paychecks. Public assistance payments were at a subsistence level. Smaller restaurants and shops could not survive. I was still getting my Social Security, my little pension check, and a trickle of income from my investments. I felt rich, but I also didn’t feel like buying much.

Life in a disaster zone involves a lot of standing in line. Money was no different. If an ATM was working, a line would form. Sometimes the cash would run out before I got to the front of the line.

As the weather warmed, berries and fresh vegetables began to show up at the farmers market, and that was where most of my cash went.

Many people who had family outside the region had left, as had anyone who could find a job elsewhere. Wealthy retirees who had come to the city for the quality of life departed in droves.

Bellingham, which had become gradually more cosmopolitan in the last few decades as the city grew, began to feel like the small, depressed little mill town I remembered from 1980 – except that now there was no mill.

But we hit bottom fairly quickly. New people began to move in. For people who had experienced the devastation of Seattle, Portland, or the coast, Bellingham seemed like an oasis.

And people figured that with the big Cascadia quake out of the way, we would be good for another few centuries – even thought that’s not necessarily true.

House prices in town had dropped to levels not seen for 20 years, and bargain-hunters came in and started pushing prices back up again. Every now and then, a smiling real estate guy would rap on my door to ask if I might want to sell.

It was tempting, even if the sales price would likely be half what it might have been a year ago. I could have a decent life with my son or my daughter back east, or I could bounce back and forth, annoying both of them by turns so as not to reveal which one I really liked best.

I wanted to visit them before the summer was over, but I knew I would come back to Bellingham. It was my home, in a way it had never been before.

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 happens to the economy after a big one hits?

A catastrophic earthquake could have long-term impacts on the economy of the Northwest and Whatcom County. It could take years to bring highways, railroads, public utilities and other facilities back to their pre-quake levels of service.

All over the world, cities have endured catastrophic quakes, and the survivors have put their lives back together afterwards.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, a 2011 earthquake killed 185 people and did extensive damage to the city’s central district. More than half the buildings did not survive the quake. But after five years, the city was thriving again.

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