Introduction

Oregon has long seemed an eerily safe place to live—an Eden immune to the terrible earthquakes of California, the hurricanes of the Caribbean, the tornadoes of the Great Plains, and the many natural misfortunes of the world outside our gentle garden.

The deadliest natural disaster to befall the state in historic times has traditionally been listed as a flash flood that killed 259 people in the small eastern Oregon town of Heppner in 1903.

But now we learn that gigantic earthquakes and tsunamis have in fact devastated the Oregon Coast every few centuries. The horrific headlines inside the front cover of this book are fictional, intended only to portray one conceivable scenario of the damage that could be caused by the next subduction earthquake.

If you find this fictional scenario shocking, consider that prehistoric Oregonians have seen much worse. In the 13,000 years that people have lived here, unimaginable floods have drowned everyone in the Willamette Valley and volcanic eruptions have killed thousands across the state.

On this larger time scale, we see not only that Oregon is a land of turmoil, but also that these cataclysmic events recur with varying degrees of regularity. What at first appear to be random disasters are in fact part of larger natural cycles. Subduction earthquakes strike Oregon every 300 to 500 years. Rivers flood every ten to 100 years. Forests burn every 20 to 200 years. Even volcanoes erupt in cycles.

Attempting to stop these cycles is hardly an answer. Dousing a forest fire, for example, only makes the next fire bigger. Subductionearthquakes could only be stopped by freezing the liquid core of the Earth itself—not really an option. Some disasters are simply the price we pay for inhabiting a living planet.

By understanding the rhythms, however, we may be able to sidestep tragedies suffered in the past. If no one is standing in the way of a natural cataclysm, is it really a disaster at all?

Because this book focuses on natural phenomena that put lives at risk, I have omitted shipwrecks, city fires, and other man-made disasters. A different book will have to cover the stranding of the New Carissa in 1999, the blaze that destroyed Oregon’s wooden State Capitol building in 1935, and the fertilizer truck explosion that leveled downtown Roseburg in 1959. I’ve also skipped the 15-million-year-old Columbia River lava floods and other cataclysms that preceded human colonization. Nor have I set out to recount every single ice storm and forest fire.

The story I have to tell is a special adventure, a guided tour through time, listening for the heartbeat of the land.

Many of the stories begin in prehistory—for example, when floods roared down the Columbia Gorge 800 feet deep, wiping out the heart of Northwest civilization. In these cases we’ll rely on the geologic record, scientific research, and Indian legends as our vehicle.

Some of the stories recount cataclysms that have become defining moments in the lifetimes of modern Oregonians—the flood of 1996, the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, or the Columbus Day windstorm of 1962.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, "Beyond the Cycles," we’ll venture forward on an expedition into Oregon’s future, admittedly a perilous landscape of projections and conjecture. If disasters occur in cycles, how reliably can we predict what will happen next? Have we already altered some cycles through development or global warming? What precautions might reasonably limit our risk of damage in the future?

The final chapter of this book is a fictional account of a major earthquake and tsunami on the Oregon Coast, set a dozen years in the future. The story is a companion piece to the fictional newspaper pages at the front of the book. Neither is intended as a specific prediction. No one can foresee the timing or effects of tectonic movement in the Cascadia subduction zone. All of the people and events described in the final chapter and in the foldout are entirely imaginary.

Of course, the other chapters of this book remain non-fiction, backed by a lengthy bibliography of sources. But I’ve found that facts are not always enough. Because we are human, we relate to disasters in human terms.

It’s all too easy to drive past the tsunami warning signs along the Oregon Coast’s Highway 101 without giving them a second thought. They are merely highway signs. Would we react differently if we could actually see how a tsunami might change our lives?

The purpose of this book is not to provide definitive answers about the effects of future disasters. That is not possible. Instead the goal is to understand the past and provoke thought about the future.

We need to ask ourselves: What other warning signs are we driving past?


William L. Sullivan
Eugene, Oregon