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The Next Tsunami

Living on a Restless Coast

Bonnie Henderson

Publication Year: 2014

On a March evening in 1964, ten-year-old Tom Horning awoke near midnight to find his yard transformed. A tsunami triggered by Alaska’s momentous Good Friday earthquake had wreaked havoc in his Seaside, Oregon, neighborhood. It was, as far as anyone knew, the Pacific Northwest coast’s first-ever tsunami.

More than twenty years passed before geologists discovered that it was neither Seaside’s first nor worst tsunami. In fact, massive tsunamis strike the Pacific coast every few hundred years, triggered not by distant temblors but by huge quakes less than one hundred miles off the Northwest coast. Not until the late 1990s would scientists use evidence like tree rings and centuries-old warehouse records from Japan to fix the date, hour, and magnitude of the Pacific Northwest coast’s last megathrust earthquake: 9 p.m., January 26, 1700, magnitude 9.0—one of the largest quakes the world has known. When the next one strikes—this year or hundreds of years from now—the tsunami it generates is likely to be the most devastating natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Illuminating the charged intersection of science, human nature, and public policy, The Next Tsunami describes how scientists came to understand the Cascadia Subduction Zone—a fault line capable of producing earthquakes even larger than the 2011 Tohoku quake in Japan—and how ordinary people cope with that knowledge. The story begins and ends with Tom Horning, who grew up to be a geologist and return to his family home at the mouth of the river in Seaside—arguably the Northwest community with the most to lose from what scientist Atwater predicts will be an “apocalyptic” disaster. No one in Seaside understands earthquake and tsunami science—and the politics and complicated psychology of living in a tsunami zone—better than Horning.

Published by: Oregon State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. 1-2

I first met Tom Horning in 2008 on a visit with my brother in Gearhart, Oregon. We had stopped for coffee and muffins at Pacific Way Bakery. In one corner a tall man stood, reclining against the wall, long arms clasped over his chest, holding forth good-naturedly on a range of topics, from the...

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pp. 3-10

It was past 10 p.m. when the chime sounded on the computer speakers in Tom Horning’s office, which he hoped to lock up and leave well before midnight. The next meeting of the board of the North Coast Land Conservancy was scheduled for the following afternoon, and as secretary...

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1: The First Tsunami: Tom, 1964

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pp. 11-29

It was called Good Friday, but to a ten-year-old boy living at the mouth of the Necanicum River on Oregon’s north coast, every Friday was good. It took Tom Horning fewer than ten minutes to pedal home from Central School in downtown Seaside to the Venice Park neighborhood where he...

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2: Barnacles Never Lie: Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1964

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pp. 30-41

Peering out the amphibian aircraft’s passenger window, George Plafker watched as the green claw of Evans Island, one of a cluster of long islands nestled together in the southwest entrance to Alaska’s Prince William Sound, came into view. The day was faultless: blue sky, little wind, perfect...

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3: Silver Dollar: Tom, 1964

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pp. 42-44

One day in late May, barely two months after the tsunami, Tom Horning came home from school to find his grandparents and mother sitting on a drift log in the yard under a tall spruce, watching the bay. Grandma and Grandpa Baker lived in Berkeley, California. They hadn’t been up to visit...

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4: A Flexible Worldview: London, England, 1964

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pp. 45-56

Exactly one week before Alaska’s Good Friday earthquake, an esteemed group of geologists, physicists, geophysicists, and engineers from around the world had gathered inside the Lecture Theatre of the Royal Institution, a palatial clubhouse for scientists on London’s Albemarle Street just a short...

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5: Mad Rise: Cambridge, England, 1965

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pp. 57-63

Fred Vine was alone in his office at Madingley Rise when he heard the door opening below and feet pounding up the wooden stairs—three steps at a time, from the sound of it. “What are you doing?” demanded the breathless voice ascending the stairs. “Stop!” At the sound, Vine’s long face broke into a wide smile. Wilson was back. John Tuzo Wilson, a geologist from the University of Toronto, had...

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6: Live Land: Tom, 1968

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pp. 64-67

It was hot on the sidewalk along Hilltop Drive, where Tom Horning sat with the rest of the eighth grade class. Hardly anyone in the neighborhood was home: just one old lady who peered out her picture window at them but didn’t offer Tom or his friends anything to drink, not a glass of lemonade...

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7: Pay Dirt: Pacific Grove, California, 1969

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pp. 68-76

Tanya Atwater stood at the front of the conference room at Asilomar, listening as the moderator recited her pedigree: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, University of Chile Geophysics Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. As she waited...

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8: Our Turbulent Earth: Tom, 1972

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pp. 77-79

By spring 1972 the tsunami from Alaska was a distant memory for most people in Seaside. A new single-family house had been built on the site of the wrecked Finnish Meeting Hall across the street from Tom’s house. The Jacksons’ house had been torn down as well, replaced with waterfront...

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9: Wave of the Future: Tom, 1976

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pp. 80-82

The display case of specimens in the main corridor of Wilkinson Hall, on the Oregon State campus, seemed to Tom to have an almost magnetic pull, its own field of gravity. Never did he walk by it, on his way to or from class, without stopping to take it in, or at least swiveling his head for...

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10: Epiodote Dreams: Tom, 1979

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pp. 83-88

Tom’s second geology job after college was almost perfect. It was a summer job in Alaska for a big mining company whose mining claims, scattered throughout the state’s interior, had to be periodically “proved up” in order to maintain them. Every morning a helicopter would arrive to pick...

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11: Core Locker: Netarts Bay, Oregon, 1986

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pp. 89-95

Mark Darienzo was looking for a quick and easy master’s degree: it was about that simple. All he wanted was to teach geology at a community college. He had a vision: himself in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, in a cluttered office in an old brick building—or on a modern...

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12: A Prepared Mind: Willapa Bay, Washington, 1986

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pp. 96-104

Brian Atwater turned east off U.S. Highway 101 just north of Bay Center, Washington, guiding the ’78 Dodge pickup through the sharp twists and dips of South Bend-Palix Road. After a mile or two, the road descended toward what looked like a broad prairie, flat as a runway and...

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13: A Fresh Sandbox: Humboldt County, California, 1986

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pp. 105-112

Pushing aside the brambles at the edge of Canyon Creek, Gary Carver and Tom Stephens scrambled up the muddy incline to the edge of the gravel road, pausing at the top to catch their breath and reorient. It had been a couple of hours since Tom had parked the blue jeep some miles back at...

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14: Last Glance: Tom, 1987

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pp. 113-117

Tom was alone in the duplex a couple of miles north of the Oregon State University campus that he shared with a fellow geology grad student, wrestling with a paragraph in his thesis that didn’t seem to want to come out right, when he got the call Saturday morning, January 17. It was his...

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15: Mad River Slough: Humboldt County, California, 1987

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pp. 118-120

Gary Carver swung off U.S. 101 at the Trinidad exit and headed up the road toward home. The drive south from Salem, Oregon, had been on a par with the drive north—baby Molly alternately sleeping and crying, toddler Terra bored to the brink of crankiness, he and Deborah frazzled and testy...

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16: Stumped: Willapa Bay, Washington, 1987

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pp. 121-133

It was still dark when David Yamaguchi was awakened by a voice calling to him from the opposite end of the trailer. “Breakfast!” Brian Atwater exclaimed, far too cheerily for—Yamaguchi groped for his glasses, then his watch—not quite 5:30 Saturday morning. Yamaguchi could smell...

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17: Ataspaca Prospect: Tom, 1988

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pp. 134-137

Tom Horning shut off the slide projector and sat down at the stained and dusty table at the front of the geology lab. He glanced over his shoulder, cringed slightly at the clock over the door: he’d run almost twenty minutes over the half hour scheduled for his thesis defense. Par for the course. A copy...

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18: Thirty Minutes: Cannon Beach, OR, 1993

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pp. 138-147

Alfred Aya, Stanford University Class of 1950 medieval philosophy major, a senior statistician with PacTel in San Francisco, knew he’d found just the place to retire when, on a driving trip up the Oregon coast in the winter of 1981, he got stormed in for a week in a motel in Cannon Beach...

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19: Home: Tom, 1993

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pp. 148-154

By the time Tom passed Staley’s Junction on U.S. 26 west of Portland, daylight was fading and the pickup’s windshield wipers were working overtime, barely keeping up with the rain that fell straight down, as if the skies themselves were defeated by the prospect of another winter. It...

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20: Freak Accidents: Tom, 1994

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pp. 155-165

Tom was running late, as usual, gunning his pickup truck through the yellow light at Warrenton, heading over Youngs Bay Bridge past the glistening mudflats and toward the towering green trusses of the Astoria- Megler Bridge spanning the Columbia. If the light was green at the left turn...

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21: Wanted: Marshall, California, and tokyo, Japan, 1994

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pp. 166-177

University of Michigan geophysicist Kenji Satake was a little surprised by all the fuss. It started at the Geological Society of America’s annual conference in Seattle in late October 1994. Satake had simply diverged a bit from the topic of the abstract he had submitted prior to the conference—just...

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22: Reunion: Tom, 1995

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pp. 178-181

Long before the meeting at Seaside High School with Baptista and the others, Tom had begun to assemble an informal collection of photos from the 1964 tsunami: disaster aftermath pictures, mostly by neighbors. There were silky black-and-white images of the bore powering up the river the...

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23: Drawing the Line

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pp. 182-185

The first official Oregon coast tsunami inundation line—geologists’ best guess at how high the water might rise in a typical local tsunami from a typical Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake—was drawn in 1995. Unless you count Al Aya’s wave form charts that the Clatsop County sheriff had...

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24: Wanted II

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pp. 186-190

Brian Atwater yanked a second time on the chainsaw’s starter cord and it roared to life, vibrating at the ends of his arms as if the machine itself were eager to get to work. He was crouched neck-deep in a muddy hole nearly four feet deep, poised uncomfortably close to a tangle of stout...

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25: Test-ch'as

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pp. 191-211

A cool, gray fall day, the wind blowing off the ocean from the northwest, cascading over the headland north of Redwood Creek and eddying restlessly over the shrubby, sandy plain where the creek empties into the Pacific. Standing at the edge of the tule marsh, dressed in chest waders, a gouge...

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26: Wisdom of the Elders

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pp. 212-220

“Did I ever tell you about my sister, the singing sands story?” Paul See, in the passenger seat of Tom’s pickup, window cracked, cigarette wedged between two fingers of his right hand and held, to little effect, near the opening. “Doesn’t ring a bell, Paul.” Tom Horning, both hands on the wheel...

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27: Thirteen

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pp. 221-226

It was a pleasant day, no storms in sight, and no swells large enough to ruffle the R/V Melville’s rolling progress. A fine July day, warm on deck if you could find a sheltered spot in the lee of the 279-foot research vessel’s superstructure in which to soak up the sun. Which some members...

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28: Star of the Sea

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pp. 227-232

It was a glorious September afternoon, the sky azure, the air at least 80 degrees outside St. Mary Star of the Sea, the Catholic church perched on the hillside above downtown Astoria. It was even hotter inside the church, with the low-angled sun baking the church’s south wall and illuminating...

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29: Penrose

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pp. 233-237

The ballroom at the Best Western Ocean View Resort still smelled, to Tom’s nose, a little sickly sweet, like a cat with a bladder infection: outgassing from the four-by-eight sheets of pressed-wood particleboard Tom had purchased and hauled to the hotel and leaned against three of the...

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30: Sumatra

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pp. 238-241

In 2004, George Priest officially retired from his job with Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, though he was still working part-time for the agency. The timing seemed to have worked out almost perfectly, not just for himself but for DOGAMI. The years since he finished drawing what was still being called, inelegantly...

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31: Higher Ground

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pp. 242-253

The forecast was for possible showers, nothing more than that, and the clouds were high and hardly threatening. So Doug Dougherty grabbed his parka and a large rolled map, stopped at his secretary’s desk to let her know his plans, and headed out to his blue Honda SUV parked outside the Seaside...

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32: Aftershock

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pp. 254-262

Not until the afternoon of their first day on the coast did Rob Witter realize he and Laurie would actually be doing all the driving in Chile. “I can drive,” Leonardo had assured his companions as they filled out the paperwork at the rental car agency in Santiago that morning. And he...

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33: S-XXL

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pp. 263-272

“Hello? Testing. Can you hear me now? Is this on? OK! Good evening, everybody, thank you for coming to the first Gold Beach tsunami preparedness meeting—the first of many!” It was three minutes past 6 p.m., the advertised start time, and people were still streaming into the cavernous Curry County Fairground Events...

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34: 3/11

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pp. 273-287

Kenji Satake was in his office at the University of Tokyo when he felt the jolt of an earthquake’s P-wave rattle up through his chair the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011. It was the fourth quake in less than a week. Nothing very dramatic followed, even when the S-waves began rumbling...

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35: Strategic Investment

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pp. 288-295

The sky above the dark mass of Tillamook Head looked bruised, the slate gray broken here and there with slivers of pale blue and shards of sunlight, as Tom steered the Accord into the ball fields parking lot off Wahanna Road. The stubborn leaves of the blackberry thicket edging the parking lot were...

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36: Perpetuity

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pp. 296-304

A midweek evening in late January, approaching 9:30 p.m.: Tom and Kirsten have only just settled back onto their living room couch after clearing the dinner dishes from the coffee table. Tom is in his usual spot at the west end of the sofa with Kirsten’s feet in his lap, a blanket covering the two of...

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pp. 305-306

In June 2013, just three weeks after a magnitude 8.3 earthquake rocked the Pacific Plate under the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan, Cannon Beach Elementary School closed for good. Superintendent Doug Dougherty had hoped to keep it open until the new tsunami-safe campus he envisioned in...

Selected References

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pp. 307-312

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pp. 313-316

My thanks go to the following scientists and others who gave generously of their time for sometimes extended interviews and manuscript review: Brian Atwater, Tanya Atwater, Alfred Aya, Antonio Baptista, Doug Barker, Loren Bommelyn, Deborah Carver, Gary Carver, Kevin Cupples, Mark...


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pp. 317-324

About the Author

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780870717338
E-ISBN-10: 0870717332
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870717321
Print-ISBN-10: 0870717324

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 4 maps
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Tsunamis -- Pacific Coast (America).
  • Tsunami hazard zones -- Pacific Coast (America).
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