The structure will be a tower, at least 50 feet high, engineered to withstand the surging force of multiple tsunamis, like those that swept away homes, schools and warehouses in Japan’s Tohoku region in 2011.
The tiny town of Tokeland, Pacific County, occupies a thumb of land that juts into Willapa Bay on the Washington coast. With the closest high ground more than two miles away, the 400 or so inhabitants would have little hope of escaping the tsunami expected to follow on the heels of the next Cascadia megaquake.
So the region’s biggest employer — the Shoalwater Bay Tribe — set out to improve the odds for both tribal members and their neighbors.
Competing with proposals from across the U.S., the tribe won a $2.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to build what will be the country’s second tsunami evacuation structure — and the first to be federally funded.
The tribe, which has only about 70 local members, is putting up $1 million for the project.
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“It’s the first of its kind, and it’s down here in our small area,” said Lee Shipman, the tribe’s emergency-management director. “We want to be able to save lives.”
The structure will be a tower engineered to withstand the surging force of multiple tsunamis, like those that swept away homes, schools and warehouses in Japan’s Tohoku region in 2011. It will be at least 50 feet high, Shipman said.
The platform on top will have enough room for 400 people to take refuge comfortably — and twice that many to cram themselves in if necessary.
“If we have to pack them in, we will,” Shipman said.
The community’s extreme vulnerability, along with the tribe’s innovative approach, were key factors in winning the grant, said FEMA Regional Administrator Mike O’Hare.
A major earthquake on the offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone would cause violent ground shaking and soil liquefaction, leaving roads impassable. The first tsunami would slam ashore within about 20 minutes and completely submerge the small peninsula, said tsunami expert Tim Walsh, of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Many people survived Japan’s 2011 tsunami by taking shelter in so-called vertical evacuation structures, O’Hare pointed out. “If you have only minutes to get to high ground, this tower will provide that opportunity,” he said.
The state’s first tsunami evacuation structure is in the equally vulnerable town of Westport, Grays Harbor County, about 20 miles north of Tokeland. The Ocosta School District, which serves kids from Tokeland and other surrounding communities, built a new gym strong and tall enough to survive a tsunami with room on the roof for nearly 2,000 people.
The district applied for — but didn’t get — FEMA funding to help cover part of the cost. Local residents approved a levy to pay for the $16 million project.
Tsunamis from a Cascadia megaquake aren’t expected to cause major damage within Puget Sound, but will be devastating on the outer coast and will also cause localized flooding along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in cities like Port Angeles and Anacortes and in parts of Whidbey Island.
Most coastal communities across the Pacific Northwest are still struggling to find ways to pay for tsunami refuges. A 2015 study estimated that about 100,000 people live or work in the tsunami danger zone. About one in four are in low-lying areas with no high ground nearby.
That includes the Long Beach Peninsula, south of Tokeland. The city of Long Beach had planned to build a man-made hill, called a berm, near its elementary school. But when new tsunami modeling concluded that the structure would have to be much taller than originally planned, the cost became prohibitive.
“It’s to a point right now where we just can’t afford it,” said Long Beach Mayor Jerry Phillips. “It’s disappointing, because of the fact that it would have protected all those children and the teachers and staff.”
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe operates a small casino, a gas station and a health center that employ many local residents and allowed the tribe to come up with matching funds for the project, Shipman said. The reservation itself, about two miles from Tokeland, has a hill nearby where people can take refuge.
“We needed something for the people in Tokeland,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
The tribe is working with structural engineers and tsunami experts to ensure that the tower will be sturdy enough, she added. They hope to break ground in March.
One analysis estimated that Washington needs more than 50 tsunami-evacuation structures to protect vulnerable populations.
Now that FEMA has funded one, O’Hare said he hopes others will follow.
“To be self-reliant and reduce reliance on federal funding for future disasters is the whole purpose of this program,” he said. “What we’re seeing here is a good example, and I hope other communities take advantage and learn from those great ideas.”