The largest earthquake in regional history devastates the Pacific Northwest and causes the Deception Pass Bridge to twist away from its anchors, plummeting along with dozens of cars, trucks and screaming passengers into the cold, swirling waters below.
Survivors struggle out of their cars covered by rocks, and make their way home, some just in time to become victims of the ensuing tsunami that wipes out the west side of North Whidbey Island, with its waters finally losing steam before they can inundate Coupeville.
The ferries still work, but can’t handle the thousands of panicked islanders trying to leave their devastated island, and with the bridge gone there’s no way to bring the supplies needed to sustain the masses living on Whidbey, most without electricity, fuel, food or running water. Besides, the mainland communities from Bellingham to beyond Seattle have also been devastated, highways and freeways buckled, and the needs of the people of Whidbey Island aren’t exactly the top priority.
Richard F. Haines describes such a scenario as “inevitable,” but for now it’s just the fanciful creation of an author desperate to wake people up to the danger of depending on an old two-way bridge suspended high over roaring currents for a way of life.
With a background in science, not literature, no one will mistake Haines’ novel, “Sudden Loss,” for a great work of art. But it does have a plot, characters that interest the reader, and a lot of solid information and interesting supposition about earthquakes, tsunamis, bridges and emergency response to keep the pages turning. Its subtitle, “Earthquake Realities,” drives home the author’s reason for writing the book.
Haines, a retiree who lives at Dugualla Bay with his wife Carol, has made numerous efforts in recent years to make decision makers take earthquake planning seriously. He started a petition to ask for an alternative bridge study, and obtained the signatures of a number of politicians and other leaders. But nothing came of it.
“The top-down approach didn’t work,” said the mild-mannered Haines. “This is a bottom-up effort.” He hopes regular people will read his book, realized how susceptible Whidbey Island is to earthquakes and tsunamis, and support efforts to plan ahead for “the big one.”
Haines needed a bad guy for his book, so he chose the fictional mayor of Oak Harbor, who gives only lip service to planning. In fact, Oak Harbor does have an emergency management plan, but Haines, a former NASA senior research scientist, isn’t impressed.
“I made the mayor the antagonist and I apologize,” he said. “But the city has an emergency plan filled with wonderful platitudes, but we’ll see how they respond.”
In “Sudden Loss,” hundreds of people die, the city has to set up an emergency morgue, and cremation is the only option. Haines is matter-of-fact, not gruesome, in his tale, and the most suspense comes from wondering what happened to a mother and young son who were crossing Deception Pass about the time the bridge collapsed.
The protagonist in the book is a fictional version of Haines, someone who sees a danger and gets organized to be prepared for any eventuality. His fictional solution is a system of pontoons that can quickly bridge any gap in Puget Sound in an emergency, and that’s what saves Whidbey Island in the end.
But that’s only one possible solution. “The point of the book was to motivate people, not design a bridge,” he said. But in his view, it’s time to plan for another bridge to assure Whidbey Island won’t be isolated and desperate after a disaster.
“Sudden Loss” is simply a warning, containing one writer’s ideas of what a such a disaster would look like, what problems would ensue, and how islanders would respond. And it’s bound to happen one day.
“It’s only fictional in the sense that it hasn’t happened yet,” he said.