‘The Next Tsunami’ tests our collective memory of disaster

04/27/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

“The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast” by Bonnie Henderson (Oregon State University Press, $19.95, paperback)

“It seems that the more ‘advanced’ a society becomes, the shorter its memory,” suggests geologic oceanographer Chris Goldfinger late in Bonnie Henderson’s riveting “The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast.” “Native Americans not only have a memory of the last Cascadia earthquake 311 years ago, they have a memory of the explosion of Mount Mazama about 7,600 years ago. We, on the other hand, can’t remember much that happened before Twitter and Facebook.”

What Goldfinger is getting at is the issue of collective memory, which increasingly beguiles us the further from a collective we become. This has long been the challenge for geologists, that in our relentless striving for the future, we tend to forget, if not erase outright, our knowledge of the past.

Such a tension occupies the center of “The Next Tsunami,” which is by turns a story of obsession, a geologic mystery and an inquiry into how we deal with disasters – or, more often, don’t. Beginning with an account of the tsunami that struck the Oregon coast on March 27, 1964, in the wake of that day’s 9.2-magnitude earthquake in Alaska, the book explores the decades of research (seismological, historical and anthropological) that enabled scientists to discover an earlier temblor: the 9.0 Pacific Northwest quake of Jan. 26, 1700, which caused a tsunami that devastated coastal regions in Japan.

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