BY NHIEN NGUYEN
When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit last year on Dec. 26, David Yamaguchi was glued to his television set, witnessing the vast and violent destruction caused by this rare natural phenomena.
The tsunami was eerily similar to what he and renowned geologist Brian Atwater had been researching for five years — the 1700 tsunami that crossed the Pacific and struck Japan.
Like detectives, the two scientists collected Japanese clues to a parent earthquake in North America in their new book, “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” (U.S. Geological Survey and University of Washington Press, 2005), in collaboration with Japanese scholars Musumi-Rokkaku Satoko, Satake Kenji, Tsuji Yoshinobu and Ueda Kazue.
In the book, the authors use the past “to help warn of outsize earthquakes and tsunamis of the future.” In 1700, people in Japan had written about the effects of “unusual seas,” such as flooded fields, wrecked houses and a fire. Having felt no earthquake beforehand, write the authors, many resisted calling it a tsunami. The book’s introduction notes, “Far from its parent earthquake, the tsunami of 1700 was an orphan.” That massive parent earthquake occurred here, offshore of southern coastal Washington.
Watching the recent tragedy in South Asia enabled Yamaguchi to see the human dimensions of a Tsunami disaster. He considered what he had learned from his research, which offers precautions that could have been taken to prevent the havoc the tsunami wreaked.
“Part of me feels guilty,” says Yamaguchi. “Why didn’t we finish this project earlier and get it out to the world?”
Yamaguchi, with a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of Washington, and Atwater, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist based at the UW, met in 1987 at a lecture where Atwater presented evidence that the southern Washington coast had suddenly sunk, indicating major shaking offshore. Atwater was searching for people to help him work on the project.
“He sensed he was onto something bigger than he could handle himself,” says Yamaguchi.
Their collaboration took a few years to solidify. Yamaguchi joined the project after studying Mount St. Helens and gaining experience dating ancient geological events from tree stumps on buried landscapes.
“We didn’t know what we were going to find, and we did not quite know how to do it,” says Yamaguchi.
Little did Yamaguchi know that his exposure to Japanese language at a young age would later pay off as an adult. He grew up hearing Japanese spoken at his family’s business, North Coast Importing, in Seattle’s International District on Maynard Street at what is now The Purple Dot Café. As a sansei (third generation Japanese American), Yamaguchi built upon his foundations in Japanese language by taking intensive college classes and spending time living and working in Japan. This background gave him the project skills to act as a translator between the scientists and the people of rural coastal Japan.
When the Kobe earthquake of 1995 killed 5100 people, the Japanese government directed additional funds to earthquake research. Atwater and Yamaguchi took advantage of the opportunity to gather geological evidence in Japan and interview local people about the 1700 tsunami. From then on, the two returned to Japan at least every other year to gather more details about the event.
Yamaguchi and Atwater knew that they wanted their book to be accessible to everyone. Knowing that science can be intimidating, the authors decided that the book had to tell the story in pictures rather than in scientific jargon.
As a writer, Yamaguchi came to enjoy the “symphony between graphics and text.” The result of the authors’ efforts is a book that offers a compelling visual lesson in understanding history, geology and Japanese language.
The Indian Ocean tsunami prompted the question of whether such a disaster could strike North America, in particular Cascadia – the region west of the Cascade Range from southern British Columbia to northern California.
The authors write that the next tsunami-producing Cascadia earthquake has a one in ten chance of occurring in the next 50 years. The ocean-crossing waves from the 1700 event show that the quake’s magnitude could rival that of the one that produced the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Yamaguchi says, “The question is not if it will happen, but whether it will happen in the lifetimes of bridges and buildings standing today.”
By the time an earthquake happens, it’s too late to prepare, says Yamaguchi. Moreover, earthquake damage disproportionately affects the poor who live or work in lowland neighborhoods, such as the ID or Rainier Valley, where the buildings are old and the ground is less firm.
“We don’t want to be the next New Orleans,” he says.
As scientists, Yamaguchi says that all they can do is build the case for a major earthquake hitting the Northwest, and hope that their research will drive legislation and strategic planning to reinforce cities, roads, and medical facilities in the real world of competition for limited funds.
David Yamaguchi and Brian Atwater present their first public Seattle reading of “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” at University Bookstore on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. A repeat reading takes place Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park Towne Centre (17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park). The full text is available online. At Google, enter “Orphan Tsunami” (text is at third site, “USGS Professional Paper 1707”).