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Realtime Training for the Cascadia Megaquake

Mt. St. Helens, from Trapper Peak. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A century storm came, a foot of heavy white snow on the ground, a real natural disaster.

This part of Oregon doesn’t see this much snow, the last time around 1915, give or take, as snow records are not kept here. We live just west of Elkton along State Highway 38 where the Umpqua slices through the coast range, at the confluence of two creeks falling a quarter mile to the river, in a rectangle single story house on a couple acres surrounded by a sheep ranch that is also better populated by hundreds of mature black and white oaks with encroaching douglas firs.

The storm came in the afternoon, a Sunday, picking up steam as the night progressed. Forecast for 2-4 inches of rain and localized flooding, a usual event, the Pineapple Express cold front instead slipped south or was just was colder aloft than thought, and instead we received the snow.

Elkton is 35 miles from the Pacific Ocean and the snowfall gained intensity as the airmass rose inland, the Hawaiian river of condensation flowing up the river valley through the fragmented, monoculture rainforest remnant, first wringing it’s atmospheric towel at the coast range and never stopping until met with the dry continental polar of the rain shadow Cascade eastside that is meteorologically influenced by the Great Basin sagebrush steppe.

Big, wet, snowflakes quietly mashed, the gunshot-like sounds breaking the silence starting slowly, turning cacophony meaning picking up in number, those accompanied by booming and thumps meaning limbs thousands of pounds were coming down nearby, the shaking of the house meaning entire trees once 50-80 feet tall.

We forecast the power going after 6 inches and a flicker. In the dark through the ever moving highway lights we watched as one of the fallen stopped a semi-truck and a few cars, some turning around, likely to be trapped or maybe crushed and killed. We couldn’t sleep with the fear knowing any minute we might have a good death, a memory feeling likely not forgotten, and needed to experience the show.

***

All of us were early risers.

It’s still snowing, thumping, now in the daylight, a 30 foot branch system drops from an oak 40 feet from the house.

It is said that the indigenous whose land we occupy called the white and black oaks ‘giving trees,’ a different story than that logging book from the ‘70s that kills the tree indoctrinating western children today. The indigenous story of untoppled living giving is a better truth, I anthropocentrically say to myself, as we’ll also consume them but purposefully leave most of the slowly dying, and opt for the easy gathering of the thigh sized branch systems, hard firewood for the next five years, starting with the one next to the house.

The fat old broken oak with the goatball hung from a living mossy branch as wide as most trunks and supporting a rainforest fern ecosystem says she remembers 1915, having lost her top and been in decline ever since. After all, she’s over 300. Today, she’s paying homage some of her progeny, once in their prime at 200 but now laying down uphill of the creek that is their home and, maybe, resting place, as the humans will come to segment and take all but 20’ of their 3’ diameter trunk and 15’ diameter root balls away.

What does the resident blue heron do during a storm like this, I think, as she flies by to survey the semi-new riparian area that is our confluence, the roosts where her broods reared rearranged, some gone, a few better. Imagine 3 foot tall herons riding out the storm, covered in wet snow. They try to shake it off as it comes but it is too much. To the core, cold heavy feathers weigh their big bodies down, snow covering the roost to their chest on a branch system halfway up an 80 foot tree. One such system in an adjacent tree falls, the branches crashing into branches, her branches, her tree, knocking her sideways upside down, falling to the floor. She lives, ruffles, gathers her wits in the dark, then flies into the nearest hemlock, protected from the snow but not the chaos.

A sheep ranch surrounds us, the spring lambs put out two weeks ago. Poor things. The rancher said he has to wait until the melt to survey the carnage likely huddled in now semi-frozen fear under the oaks. He’s worried about pneumonia, the sheep sodden, warm but wet. Won’t be days until the sun comes out in earnest, the radiative heat stronger than snow cover and the forecast 45F. They cry at night, the bells around the necks of the ewes say they restlessly roam at night.

About midday, the stalled semi and the others were rescued from the direction of Reedsport, beforehand one fella using our bathroom to take a shit. With one lane opened and my partner a federal lands manager out of contact with her staff for two days and having a duty, she and the kids left shortly after, their mission to contact the outside world and get a few supplies.  Little did I know I wouldn’t hear from them for two days.

***

The food from the cleaned out refrigerator is set upon the table under the covered porch with the old coleman propane two burner camping stove, temperature in the 30s at night. Good refrigerator weather. The firepit outside can also be used for cooking and the wood firebox is keeping the shoebox house warm, the top covered with multiple boiling stock pot meltwater caught in the barrel installed that drains the eaves for this kind of event.

No cell, the emergency battery powered radio said the Douglas County Commissioners declared a State of Emergency. That’s good, as I was wondering about old people and the nonexistent 911 system, the cell towers down. I suppose an old fashioned hard line would work, but the neighboring rancher says just to Elkton.

A few weeks ago on the A.M. dial driving to a doctor’s appointment, I listened to a rich retired fella responsible for raising awareness in Oregon about preparing for the eventual Cascadia mega-earthquake that geologists say is overdue. Power out for a year, roads closed due to bridges and trees down, months without utilities, services, groceries resulting in mass migrations from the region – know how to get water out of your hot water heater. Get ready, he says, as water is the most important. Think like a Mormon (my thoughts) and stock up on storable food for the short term. Maintain a great garden centered on permaculture (Kollibri Terre Sonnenblume’s thoughts in my head). You’re on your own for at least a year.

Last fall I purchased from the honey factory in Eugene the repurposed 50 gallon barrel mentioned earlier for $10 along with a 250 gallon tank I have yet to install for $120. They are both food grade. Gonna put the 120 on a 5 foot tower for pressure, collect rainwater off the roof of the garage, manifold it with valves with one piped to the hoop house raised beds that are netted to keep the chickens out, as chickens are also a necessity, largely for eggs and slug control. Our buck Thor also needs a mate, one we can milk and with he can share time. Next year, I hope we’re producing ⅓ of our needs, in time more as the fruit and nut trees mature. Someday, maybe, 100%. Takes time – I hope we have time – a little bit of money, lateral reuse and a kick in the ass to be a liberal, pot smoking, home making, shot-gun owning, prepper.

Electric crews are not ready here, many down in California fixing things after their State of Emergencies based in fire, slowing progress. They must first clear lines from roads for safety, then roads crews supplemented by local fire crews clear one lane of debris, days later moving to the clear rest to the ditches. For months they’ll be cleaning up the ditches, for years utilities and roads crews will struggle to clear their entire rights of way.

Our drop was down the first night next to Thor’s small building, pulled from its burial to our house next to the pole by several trees. He was terrified and wanted a good scratch that always leaves me with stink. He probably feels the same regarding humans. Luckily for us we both don’t mind and that the pole in his cross-fenced area is upright and close to the feeder that always follows main roads. Won’t take but a few hours to repair once they’ve pulled the line from under the downed trees. He’ll enjoy the company.

What is quite noticeable is the drop in traffic. While we can get to Reedsport we cannot get to the I-5 corridor 25 miles away. Hwy 38 between here and Drain is said to have over 2,000 trees down, Hwy 138 meandering along the Umpqua upstream to Roseburg is also closed with likely a similar number. Only a few vehicles associated with clearing the roads out today, not a single State Trooper, and the quiet nice.

***

Driving to Reedsport today to see if my family was alive hundreds of trees hung precariously over the roadside, many landslides a result of the highway cut along the river to its mouth with the pacific toppling entire monoculture groves. They’re alive and we meet at the grocery store. I’m relieved and happy of their tales of adventure, of the unstable single lane widowmakers they passed under, of how as they entered town days earlier the barricades were going back up and couldn’t get back to Elkton, spending the first night in Coos Bay, the second in Florence, all of us wondering about the other, while my civil service partner was able to be in contact with her staff also affected by and responding to the disaster.

Our area is ground zero for plantation logging and I muse that Gaia is monkeywrenching their operations, closing roads in the knife edge hills above us, the clearing of downed trees and clearcut induced landslides a summer long endeavor that costs Roseburg Forest Products and their corporate kind millions to pay people to reopen their private roads, millions in lost revenue from raw material stream disruption, and a measly few hundred thousand in lobbying politicos to pressure public lands managers like my spouse to reopen USFS and BLM roads using both the emergency declaration and the neoliberal Congressional delegations who eat government cheese by the pound by to authorize agencies to spend money and time they otherwise would spend “managing” the now peaceful forest.

But, for now, the earth around our region rests, the carbon of thousands of vehicles is not being expended on the way to a coast vacation or to industrial log, the inhabitants of this place no matter the species again enjoying a quiet dark sky night.

***

The two highways to I-5 reopened today and the cars have come back. The radio says people can now drive from Roseburg to the high Cascades to enjoy the new snow, to drag snow machines and to hopefully be caught in avalanches. I saw a sand machine pulled by monster truck heading to the coast to tear up Oregon Dunes National Wreckreation Area. The unquiet returns.

Still, the still is in the forest as the forest roads come last, the feeders just starting to feed once again, and I haven’t seen a single log truck.

No power, the snow on the metal roof took the rain catching gutter down. I anticipated such, the weight of the snow coupled with local building practices told me, as being from snow country you know to either not have gutters or set them down from the finished roofline a few inches instead of flush. We bought this place two years ago and I’m still making adjustments. No matter, as the barrel is full and after the 48’×24’ slab of snow slides I’ll tack it up right, safely. Besides, the creek never runs dry. Good kids work filling buckets for toilet water.

We talked of how easy it is to account for our carbon when the roads are closed and power out. Firewood and batteries, using the stored carbon in our cupboards, gear, household. No water heater, heater (we have wood primary), refrigerator. However, we are still using the vehicle and we really miss hot water and a bath, an adjustment that must be made.

We keep saying this is a trial run, the pain temporary yet hopefully long lasting on lifestyle awareness.

***

The governor signed the State of Emergency Declaration, sending money to the area. We hope power might come by Monday, a full week after the storm. The City of Drain, 15 miles from Elkton, has drained it’s water tank, asking it’s 500 residents to conserve until tomorrow when a tractor trailer generator is to arrive and power the water and sewerage treatment plants. The City of Elkton, of which we are not a part, is receiving the same treatment. At least water and sanitation are covered for most, a few putt-putt small generators for lights.

I imagine thousands of people feeling like us and worse experiencing pains changing to routines long lost, finding old school things they must and can only do, which is usually a hard thing. I also imagine disasters elsewhere around the world, and further to how everyday people around the world live like we temporarily live today with far less.

Capitalism keeps humans from being still, our species history sitting in groups mostly processing food and telling stories. It is very pleasant to be old school with the family, working, playing, perhaps training, for future survival. No power for cooking, cells and internet to entertain. A different habit almost is being allowed to develop a rhythm.

Today, corporations and their industries prey upon both stories and the human ADHD condition, marketing virtual and reality, resulting in 10% of the planet’s GHGs produced through global travel and tourism alone just to occupy our free time, no matter the logging.

As I type on my phone, I notice that the cell phones have come back tempered with the knowledge of power being on in the next few more days. A conflict emerges within, of how to again feed. Then, a friend and her one year old son stop by saying they were at the community meeting held at the high school this morning and gives me the good news: no power for at least two weeks. She being a board member we wonder about the schools, sanitation, talk about the fuel oil boiler on their next agenda that now functions when the solicited electric replacement will not, of industrial and home use generators now being deployed and kept filled by a FEMA funded generator to power the the only fuel station in town, of how after the Cascadia earthquake fossil fuels will eventually run out.

Of how everyone is in training.

***

The kids not so lucky, school is beginning Monday after a week out of school, as a tractor trailer fossil fuel generator has been deployed, furthering their carbon education. A similar generator is set up at the high school that is functioning as a Red Cross Shelter for the public providing water, scheduled meals, appliance charging, a shower and a place to stay. Wandering through, a few old couples obviously using the cots, a couple middle aged ladies putting together puzzles, the younger glued to screens, and others taking donated food and drinking water for home use. The kids will start school two hours late every day and be allowed time for showers, the old fuel oil boiler put to good use as most students are and will be without power for weeks at home meaning sanitation a concern and communicable illnesses probable.

Heat, water and sanitation are everyone’s new home routine. Heat to boil water for washing, another basin with a bit of bleach for rinsing, all the leftover grey water reused for rinsing the next set of dishes, a reason for everyone to pitch in with the chore. This water I collect, the gutter still hanging half way along the 48’ long rectangle of our house, ⅓ of the entire slab remaining, the 50 gallon barrel no longer filling. I improvise and have an old fiberglass pressure tank, cut a hole in the top and placed it under the drain pipe connecting the remaining gutter, again capturing meltwater we can use for toilets and cleaning. I want the slab to come so that I can repair the gutters safely and collect the rain to come in three days. All of this so we don’t need to haul water from the creek. Then, we can sit back and wait for power.

Everything is melting nicely, uncovering the subjective sense of damage. I have many fences to mend (physically and metaphorically), the dogs now in tethers, the neighboring sheep can find the holes. I, too, will be firing up a chainsaw I haven’t started in 15 years, as I can’t hand cut the sizes to be cleared and have a relatively old responsibility of a neighborly agreement to maintain our fence. I’ve noticed a few dead sheep being piled by their burn pile, “Besides, I bet you have a mile of your own to work to do, sheep to care for.” He smiles, “Well, if ya need anything….”

Thor can get to the highway if he climbs over the debris that covers his fence but he won’t as the fossil fuel carbon is about back to normal – it scares me also – every 15 seconds cars and trucks pass us during the day, adding to thousands. But, still, no log trucks and we lament it was good while it lasted.

Douglas County Electrical Cooperative issued a map indicating our area now three weeks away from power, describing after flyovers six days after the beginning of the storm, “What they are revealing is complete devastation. Trees too numerous to count have brought down an incredible amount of our system. Some areas can be repaired while others will need to be rebuilt. Our thirty foot right-of-way clearing zone does little when the eighty foot firs from outside of our allowed area come crashing down. Trees on wires, we can deal with. Trees taking out complete sections of poles and wires is a different story. Frankly, our hope and concern is that we continue to receive supplies needed to fix the system.”

Adding,

“We average 6 consumers for every mile of power line, in the most densely forested areas of our county. For this reason, it necessitates that our members be prepared and self-sufficient as they are often on their own. In times like these, everyone needs to help everyone.”

***

It’s been a week and another neighbor asked if I wanted to use one of their generators. I graciously declined, as I feel we have it mostly covered, my internal reasoning unsaid that the carbon conversion to lighting wasteful.  It won’t run a water pump or electric heater, our immediate desires.

It’s not over but most everyone appears to be managing..

Before the next disaster – hopefully a year or more from now – whether the same, Cascadia earthquake or climate change, I do hope everyone has the bath figured out.

For us, I’m thinking a wood fired outdoor stock tank hot tub fed by rainwater and giving trees, in the garden next to our modern longhouse by the confluence. My wife and I will clean each other while the kids are catching fish for dinner from the Umpqua River, throwing the small ones to the herons.

More articles by:

Chris Zinda is an activist and writer living in Oregon.

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