My brother was serving in the Army in Anchorage, Alaska when the Good Friday earthquake hit. It was a horrifying experience for him and for the rest of his life, he refused to travel to earthquake-prone places, never wanting to risk anything like that again. Remembering his stories of the quake, I was eager to read New York Times climate journalist Henry Fountain’s The Great Quake.
Fountain examines how the Alaska earthquake changed our understanding of plate tectonics, continental drift, and what our planet is getting itself up to while we’re not looking. Well, really, how imperceptibly, but inexorably, the surface of the planet is always moving and shifting, responding to unseen forces deep in the earth’s core.
This is a journalistic book, well-organized to create the setting, the action, and the aftermath. It benefits from that clarity that journalism excels, taking theory and explaining it clearly and simply. Fountain knows that personal stories are important to engaging readers on topics they might never look at otherwise. He has that personal approach that powerfully brings home the devastation of the earthquake – not just by listing the buildings damaged and lives lost, but in the achingly painful moment of a father seeing a wave carrying his daughter away, her frightened cry “Dad!” the final word he ever hears from her.
He also makes the science interesting and finds the odd details that make the story remarkable, such as how barnacles, those wee crustaceans were important to understanding the quake.
It is disconcerting to read this while Puerto Rico is devastated by Hurricane Maria. In 1964 we were able to send help and supplies to remote Alaskan villages within twenty-four hours while we cannot do that in eight days to an island off our shores. I don’t think it’s because our transportation technology is so much less, what has changed is our commitment to each other.
Living as I do in the Cascadia subduction zone, right where “The Big One” is expected to come, this is more than idle interest. It’s odd, though, living here. We all know it will happen, but since earthquakes are not seasonal like hurricanes, blizzards, or other natural disasters, we just assume it will not happen for a long, long time. However, for all I know, it could happen this evening. If it does, I hope Fountain will write the story.
I received a copy of The Great Quake from the publisher through Blogging for Books.