October 17, 2016

The Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster begins entering literature


zoneFor many Americans, the middle of 2015 marked a turning point.

There was the time before you read “The Really Big One,” Kathryn Schulz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker piece about the “Cascadia Subduction Zone event,” i.e. how an earthquake will devastate the Northwest coast of the United States very soon. And then there was the time after you finished the piece, and the immediate sinking feeling that massive-scale disaster was looming, and there was (probably) nothing you could do to stop it.

Thankfully, that terror was quickly sublimated into election coverage, and there are some measures being taken to prepare for the Event as displayed in this extremely polite deck. But Schulz’s terrifying and essential treatment of the inevitable Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster, which helped aid its transformation it into a point of national discussion, is still rippling out into the nation’s nightmares, emergency planning discussions, and finally — comic books! Allan Brettman reports for OregonLive:

Althea Rizzo knew where to go when she wanted an effective messenger to communicate with young people about tsunami dangers — the heralded Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie.

Rizzo, geologic hazards program coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, had reached out to Dark Horse before.

“About four years ago we were looking to create a publication to reach out to the younger demographic,” Rizzo said, and Dark Horse was tapped to bring the message about the dangers of earthquakes to young people. That comic book, Without Warning, published about two years ago, was quickly snapped up.

And now “Without Warning: Tsunami” has been released and is available online. The 16-page comic book tells the story of a mother-daughter camping trip on the Oregon coast. The duo is forced to make life-saving choices and help others in danger when an earthquake and resulting tsunami strike.

Rizzo is no stranger to comics, being married to a former illustrator and inker, and she intends Without Warning! Tsunami to help younger Northwesterners cope with, and prepare for, their homes being destroyed by an unstoppable wall of water. Which is a pretty noble aim!

She didn’t want to make the story “bright, saccharine and sweet. It kind of delves into the injuries, the property damage and widespread effects — and that preparedness can make a difference.”

What made Schulz’s piece so profoundly worldview-altering is that, unlike other essays or writing on the inevitable horrors that will be wrought by climate change, there is strong evidence that the Subduction Event happens every few centuries — and we’re overdue. And while there have been plenty of works of literature that take on climate change, the Subduction Event is arguably underrepresented in fiction — where its terrifying implications could see even greater exposure among readers who don’t usually concern themselves with Pulitzer-winning essays.

Zombie apocalypses are implausible because there are more than enough assault weapons per capita to prevent that, and humans rot way too quickly. An all-powerful AI or robot takeover would be a scarier thought if the nation’s internet infrastructure wasn’t in such a shambles. But, as always, the actual incoming existential threats are easy to chalk up as inventions of overimaginative alarmists — until they enter culture on a broad enough scale that they seem like a genuine probability. Let us hope Dark Horse’s latest creation is the first of many fictional works that take on the Subduction Event as not just possibility, but inevitability, and grapple with what will be a very real, very horrible state of affairs in its aftermath.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.