Monday, August 11, 2008

William L Sullivan: Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
August 2, 2008

The Cascadia subduction zone lies a few miles off the Oregon coast. Every three to six hundred years the Pacific Plate and Juan de Fuca Plate slide, and Oregon gets a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami. The last event was in 1700, so we’re due any time now for the next. Unfortunately, those beautiful 1930’s coast river bridges I mentioned in an earlier review are not likely to survive. Advice for Oregonians: Don’t live in a brick building, and on the coast don’t live farther than a ten-minute walk to high ground.

I chatted with Bill Sullivan at the Maude Kerns Art and the Vineyard festival a few weeks ago, where I was helping my wife, Sue, sell things at her fused glass art booth. After he told me the story above, I couldn’t resist buying the book.

Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters is a little history, a little science, a little politics, and a little advice. It describes a whole spectrum of natural events starting with the ice age floods, and then on to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, windstorms, landslides, and forest fires. To a non-Oregonian this would likely be dry reading. To an Oregonian it is pretty interesting, since we’ve all heard stories of the major natural events that occurred here—before our time, or when we were young, or even five years ago. There is no plot to keep us engaged, but Sullivan works in personal stories of people impacted by many of the disasters. He describes the events in some depth, giving us both a technical understanding of what happened and a personal sense of its impacts.

I was interested in learning about the Vanport flood of 1948, since we later bought a house that had been recovered from the flood. And the Columbus Day storm of 1962, since my wife has told me stories of living through it. And the ice age floods that possibly lapped at our farm in the hills at the south end of the Willamette Valley. And the Tillamook Burns in the 1930’s and 40’s, which was still evident when I moved to Oregon in 1971. And even the Biscuit Fire of 2002, which led to challenges to conventional wisdom on how to manage a forest after a major fire. “Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk.”

Each chapter includes some historical data, like the chart showing the history of eruptions of each of Oregon’s major peaks. And the chapters contain predictions for future events and suggestions for surviving them. Interestingly, after reading this book I don’t feel terribly threatened. But I don’t live at the coast, near a volcano, downhill from a clear-cut, or in a floodplain. I do live adjacent to a forest that is pretty dry in August.

The book includes some surprises about the impacts of the works of man on natural disasters. Damming all of Oregon’s major rivers was supposed to reduce flooding, but has it? In a 1975 survey of 245 landslides that occurred in one coastal forest district, 91% were in clear cuts or road cuts. Wow!

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