The Next Tsunami

Living on the coast, waiting for the big one

A review of “The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast” by Bonnie Henderson



By Bonnie Henderson

In many ways, a book like this shouldn’t work as well as it does. For one thing, the topic is about a disaster that hasn’t happened yet—a devastating tsunami that could consume communities all along the Pacific Northwest coast from Vancouver Island down to northern California. A lot of people might think, who cares? Wake me when it happens.

For another thing, the book is heavy on historical science: plate tectonics, paleoseismology, dendrochronology. As Henderson points out, tectonic plates move at about the same rate as your fingernails grow, not exactly the plot material of a page-turner. Yet that’s what this feels like. It’s non-fiction writing of the calibre of authors like Margaret MacMillan, Margaret Visser and Susan Orlean.

The story starts when Henderson meets by accident the garrulous, underemployed geologist Tom Horning in a bakery café in the small coastal town of Seaside, Ore. Horning was 10 when the worst earthquake in the recorded history of North America hit Alaska on March 26, 1964. The quake sent a deep underwater wave barrelling down the coast at a speed faster than a jet airliner can fly. It crested the northern shore of Vancouver Island before tearing up Horning’s neck of the woods. Shaken awake at midnight, he ran from his bunkhouse to find “thick, lustrous yellow foam piled deep against the house and cottage. And fish: flounders and perch and bullheads, lying still and scattered all over the yard.” Further south, the wave engulfed four children camping with their parents, sparing the parents but sweeping all four kids out to sea.

Understanding how and why another tsunami more powerful than this is bound to strike is what makes this book a must-read for anyone living on the West Coast. We know about the quake. “The earthquake now expected off the northwest coast is likely to be bigger than anything the San Andreas Fault can kick up,” says one scientist. But it won’t be the quake we need to worry about, says Horning. The quake will be the warning. It’ll be the wall of water that comes crashing in. Coastal native people remember the destruction of the last truly cataclysmic wave that swept away whole villages. It’s been passed down in the lore since the great quake of Jan. 27, 1700. “We, on the other hand,” says scientist Chris Goldfinger, “can’t remember much that happened before Twitter and Facebook.” Business owners fear that tsunami preparedness will scare away the tourists. Horning says, “Why not do something about it and claim bragging rights? ‘Seaside, The Most Tsunami-Ready City on the Oregon Coast!’ ”



Living on the coast, waiting for the big one

  1. Dear Julia McKinnell,
    We have a small bone to pick with you about this sentence: “The story starts when Henderson meets by accident the garrulous, underemployed geologist Tom Horning in a bakery café in the small coastal town of Seaside, Ore.”

    We’re sure you didn’t mean to malign our friend Tom, but this sentence seems to be a bit pejorative. Perhaps you meant to say “gregarious” and “consulting” geologist Tom Horning. And you got the location of the bakery/cafe wrong: we gather around the coffee pot and bakery goods at the Pacific Way Cafe in GEARHART, Oregon. Just because we have the same zip code as Seaside doesn’t mean we are the same town. (Check it out—we have our own elk herd, even.)

    All of this is by way of saying that we LOVE our gregarious, consulting geologist Tom Horning. To us he is a hero because he is so good at articulating the danger of being unprepared for the restlessness of our coastline. Many people in our area now have their emergency stashes of food, warmth, and light ready to go at any time, should The Big One come. It will not take us unprepared, thanks to Tom Horning and Bonnie Henderson’s telling of his story.

    Your careless misspellings of the words “gregarious” and “consulting” have hurt our collective feelings at the PacWay bakery and cafe. The connotations of the words “garrulous” and “underemployed” portray Tom as less than the hero he truly is.

    Come and visit us someday in Gearhart, OR. We’ll buy you a cup of coffee and a pecan roll and introduce you to the nicest gregarious consulting geologist in all of the Pacific Northwest, Canada included.

    Kit Ketcham, RuthAnn Barnes, Sandy Duncan, and Pat Wollner
    Members of the Tom Horning Fan Club