The Big One, Serialized

Mar 1, 2018

Do you have two weeks of food, water and other essentials to survive after a catastrophic earthquake or other disaster? Most Pacific Northwesterners mean well but aren't prepared. In Portland, on the Washington Coast, in British Columbia and now in Bellingham, writers tackled The Big One in serial form to motivate people into action.

In the Bellingham case, a family foundation, a writer and a newspaper settled on fiction storytelling as the most effective format to break through complacency.

The writer's name is John Stark. He stepped away from a long career as a newspaper reporter a few years ago. Stark was enjoying retirement in Bellingham when the phone rang last spring with a freelance offer. A local foundation wanted to commission a writer to imagine realistically what life would be like in Bellingham during and after The Big One—a roughly magnitude 9.0 earthquake arising from the offshore Cascadia fault zone.

The project turned into a 27 chapter novella, serialized over the past month in the Bellingham Herald.

"I actually had a first draft where we had looting at the supermarket and guns drawn and shooting and all this kind of thing,” Stark said. “It was a lot of fun to write. I thought it was pretty exciting. But when all was said and done, I realized that it was not only not realistic, it was also not constructive to lead people to expect that kind of thing."

Stark revised that scene and others after consulting earthquake and disaster experts. They told him emergencies tend to bring out the best in most people. Stark said the hurricanes that swamped Texas and Puerto Rico, California wildfires and a damaging earthquake in Mexico happened while he was writing. They informed his story, for example a scene of neighbors banding together to fight a house fire.

The fictional characters also spend a lot of time scrounging for food because disaster relief is slow to arrive, as is likely to happen in real life.

The Riverstyx Foundation in Bellingham conceived and funded the "Imagining the Big One'" project at the instigation of its president, businessman Jim Swift.

Foundation director Heather Flaherty said they were concerned by lack of preparedness and wanted a novel way to engage people.

"It seems like the facts are not working,” she said. “Or they're working to a point, but how do we get people to take action. So how can we draw people in in a way that is interesting and fun and we educate almost as a head fake? You're learning through entertainment."

Flaherty and Stark said they're delighted with the response to the storytelling approach. Readers emailed or commented that they were inspired to take steps to improve their emergency kits.

Independently, Grays Harbor County Deputy Director of Emergency Management Chuck Wallace started writing a similar story of misfortune set in his area. He has finished the first two chapters of what he envisions as a six chapter online story project.

Titled "Moments of Misfortune," each new installment comes out first in the department's digital newsletter, with a new chapter every two months. The tale includes multiple earthquakes, a school collapse and tsunami.

"People pay attention to the stories,” Wallace said. “And when you give them the story, they're not playing on their phone. It kind of brings things home. You're not telling them that the world is going to end today. You're just saying this is what could happen."

"We remember stories way more than we remember factoids,” Flaherty said.

You could say there's a burgeoning literary tradition here. The online magazine Motherboard used the term "reported science fiction" in 2016 to introduce a five-part series about the aftermath of a Cascadia megaquake in Portland. CBC Radio Vancouver took the same premise to southwest British Columbia for a limited-run podcast.

All of these projects fold practical tips that you've maybe been ignoring into their stories or in "news-you-can-use" sidebars.