Washington Disasters (Rob & Natalie McNair-Huff)

Most folks living in the Northwest today remember the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001. I was in my office, for instance, mildly eavesdropping on a class in the next room. I stood up when the shaking began and rode it out in the doorway while the people in class chattered in their seats, neither panicking nor reveling in the experience. We reconvened in the parking lot a few minutes later and looked a scant more critically at the building’s facade, searching for either cracks or reassurance.

I share the memory of the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens with fewer people these days and I’ve heard some long-time Washingtonians recall the infamous Columbus Day Storm of 1962 and even the big 1949 earthquake. Both were before my time. These events were significant milestones in the history of the Northwest; common memories that people in our region share. An earthquake hits and suddenly everyone is swapping stories of where they were when the last one struck or comparing the recent storm to some fierce howler that took down a neighbor’s tree.

Some of these stories are retold in Washington Disasters [LibraryThing / WorldCat], a book by Tacoma authors Rob and Natalie McNair-Huff. The book also recounts the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, the Seattle and Spokane fires, and a few significant plane crashes and shipwrecks. I’ve read other things about the 1910 avalanche that rolled a train down a mountain near Wellington (it was one of the worst train wrecks in the nation’s history), but had never known about the closer-to-home Tacoma Trolley derailment ten years earlier. By coincidence, I drove past the accident site the same day I read about it. Spooky. Both accidents are in the book.

Other readers might be surprised to learn about the estimated 9.0 whopper of a quake the Northwest suffered 300 years ago. In another book — sorry, I can’t recall which — I read how a geologist recently determined the date and severity of that quake, matching Indian legends and local marine deposits to Japanese tsunami records. For people new to the tale, however, Washington Disasters summarizes the big quake in its first chapter.

The stories are short and self-contained, making this a good book to read in random 5-minute bites. The subject matter may become a bit depressing if you take in one sitting anyway. Washington history is one of my amateur specialties, however, so the brevity was actually disappointing to me, but the book offers a good introduction to some significant, non-political events in state history. “Mount St Helens,” the authors correctly point out, “remains one of the most universal memories in the Pacific Northwest” even after more than a quarter century. Sad as they are, these events define the generations.

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