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News / Northwest

Tsunami preparedness in WA: How Westport and its neighbors are leading the way

By Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times
Published: January 21, 2024, 11:06am

WESTPORT, Grays Harbor County — The phone call Westport had been waiting on for three years finally came in November.

City administrator Kevin Goodrich, at his desk early, was the first to get the news: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is granting the coastal community’s request for $15.2 million to build a tsunami evacuation structure to protect people in its low-lying marina area.

But even though Goodrich and his colleagues had been in bureaucratic limbo since submitting the grant application in 2020, they didn’t spend much time celebrating.

“Obviously, it’s very satisfying,” Goodrich tells me a couple of weeks later. “But it’s really just business as usual for us, because we still have a lot of work before we can get anything on the ground — and then there are all the other ones.”

Other tsunami towers, he means.

Anchored on the north by Westport and on the south by Tokeland and the Shoalwater Bay Reservation, this 15-mile stretch of Pacific Coast locals call South Beach already boasts Washington’s only two tsunami escape structures. The new project, set to be completed in 2026, will make it three. And Westport is determined to keep pushing until it has at least three more — enough to guarantee the safety of most of the small town’s 2,200 residents and the thousands more who visit every year.

That commitment stands in contrast to many of the state’s other vulnerable seaside towns, where voters in recent years overwhelmingly rejected multiple school bond measures to build evacuation towers or relocate schools. In some places, the debates turned nasty, with misinformation flying and critics pooh-poohing the risk while also arguing a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami would be so destructive, there’s no point in preparing.

In Westport, discussions have been practically dull in comparison. “We haven’t really received much pushback,” Goodrich says of plans for the new tower. Of course, it requires only a 10% funding match from the city. But local residents dug deep in 2013, when they approved a $13.8 million bond issue to build a new elementary school with the nation’s first tsunami evacuation structure atop the gym.

South Beach’s second tower, opened in 2022, was built by the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe with FEMA funding. At 54 feet tall, it’s big enough to hold more than 400 people. Instead of siting the structure next to its offices or health center, the tribe picked a central location so neighbors also could take refuge when the next megathrust quake and tsunami hit — as they inevitably will.

“We’re survivors,” says Shoalwater Bay Chairwoman Charlene Nelson. “And we want the people around us to be survivors, too.”

THAT’S A COMMON sentiment along this isolated stretch of coastline, and could, in part, explain why Westport and South Beach are facing the threat of tsunamis head-on. Danger from the sea is nothing new in a place where some of the first white settlers were lighthouse keepers and members of the U.S. Lifesaving Service — a precursor to the Coast Guard — standing by in the late 1800s to assist mariners, and rescue shipwreck survivors.

Nature’s power to reshape the landscape is also undeniable here. South of Westport, the ocean swallowed up a lighthouse and rescue station in the 1940s and continues to eat away at the shore. Storm-driven king tides frequently flood Westport’s marina district. Geologists digging in stream banks have uncovered the sandy deposits swept in by past tsunamis.

In an unpredictable environment far from urban centers, people in South Beach rely on themselves and their neighbors, says John Shaw, executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society. Generations of residents have weathered the boom and bust of logging and sport fishing and forged an economy that rolls with the punches, with commercial fishing and cranberry growing as mainstays. Surfing and tourism boomed during the pandemic, and enterprising business leaders started capitalizing on the ferocious waves that batter the coast in winter to draw visitors to “Storms & Seafood” events.

“People know they live at this dynamic interface between the land and the ocean,” Shaw says. “We can have a giant storm and lose hundreds of feet of frontage. We can have serious flooding; we can lose boats and people. We can have a tsunami. Everybody likes to talk about resilience these days, but the South Beach community was resilient before it was a buzzword.”

Contemplating the scale of devastation from a tsunami, however, can overwhelm even the hardiest coast-dwellers, Shaw acknowledges. When University of Washington researchers conducted public workshops in 2018 to help the community grapple with the prospect, they asked residents to focus instead on their hopes for recovery — and people responded.

“Once upon a time in Westport,” wrote one participant, “with strength and determination, the town was able to regrow from a tsunami.”

IT’S THE MORNING of The Great ShakeOut earthquake and tsunami drill, and a group of Ocosta High School students is preparing to cover the event for their in-house news service. Some of the team will be flying a drone for a birds-eye view of the roof of the elementary school gym. Anchored by 169 pilings up to 50 feet deep, the building is designed to withstand a major earthquake and tsunami and allow all the district’s 650 students and staff — and nearby residents — to take shelter above the water’s reach.

Clouds and fog obscure the horizon on this Thursday in late October. When skies are clear, drone images reveal the beauty and peril that coexist on this flat thumb of sand. Less than a third of a mile from the school’s front door lies the Pacific Ocean. Grays Harbor wraps around the back. Scientists estimate the first tsunami could hit the coast within about 15 minutes of a Cascadia quake and inundate most of Westport. Downed trees and buckled pavement would render roads impassable. The single route off the peninsula crosses two bridges that aren’t expected to survive the shaking. For most residents, the only escape will be man-made high ground such as the school roof — which isn’t an easy specter to grow up with.

“I had nightmares when I was younger — everything I know and love gone,” says freshman Salvador Medrano-Aguayo, who’s helping operate the drone under the supervision of UW graduate student Matias Korfmacher.

USING DRONES TO engage young people in preparedness is one of several collaborations between UW researchers and coastal communities such as Westport through the National Science Foundation-funded Cascadia Coastlines and Peoples Hazards Research Hub and other initiatives.

The academics hope to help these small towns boost their — yes — resilience, and understand why some are more open to action than others. They’re also providing direct assistance, such as helping Westport revise its comprehensive plan to factor in tsunamis and sea level rise, and a new $2 million grant to create a local communications network that will keep working after a disaster.

“I have collaborated with a number of communities, and have never encountered … this much receptiveness,” says the UW’s Dan Abramson, an expert in urban design and planning. “What the community has done already is amazingly foresightful and visionary, whether it’s the tribe, the school district or the city of Westport itself.”

In their first year working with the drones, the students produced videos dramatizing tsunami evacuation — complete with kids being knocked off their feet by the quake — and tracing the path and height of a towering wave sweeping into town. This year, they’re developing a science-based game focused on natural hazards and filming evacuation routes to share with community members.

Some of Westport’s residents don’t realize they wouldn’t be able to make it to the school on foot before a tsunami hits, particularly from the marina area more than 3 miles away, says sophomore Grayson Bearden, who’s on the roof photographing the drill. But a few spots of high ground might provide their best shot at safety — at least until the new tower is built. “Our goal is to get more information out about this kind of stuff,” he says.

Youth involvement is a great way to catalyze wider community involvement, says Goodrich. He credits years of work with the UW and state agencies with helping build support for the towers.

But equally important is the character of the people of the South Beach area, who made history by collectively agreeing to protect their children against a disaster that’s never happened in living memory — and might not occur for another lifetime or more.

CRANBERRY SEASON IS in full swing in the weeks before Thanksgiving, and the Quinby family has been working dawn to dusk to bring in their 70 acres. They practice dry harvesting using machines called Furford Pickers to cut and bag the fruit. Tommy Quinby, one of the youngest farmers, at 33, explains that his grandfather started growing cranberries here in Grayland after World War II, and the extended family has been at it ever since. “I grew up in the house my dad grew up in,” he says. “So that’s kind of our homestead.”

The Quinbys are among many families with deep ties to the South Beach area. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s ancestors fished, hunted and foraged throughout the region for thousands of years, and their descendants have no intention of leaving, Nelson says. The Westport Marina, consistently ranked in the top 20 U.S. ports in commercial fish landings, is crowded with boats passed down from generation to generation. Goodrich, the city administrator, is a hometown boy himself. There’s a street named for his grandmother, Neddie Rose, who ran a hotel, a restaurant and a fleet of fishing charter boats.

Connections like that are one of the reasons the bond issue for the elementary school and tsunami tower passed so handily, says former school superintendent Paula Akerlund, who led the campaign. Images of Japan’s deadly 2011 tsunami were still fresh in many people’s minds, but she was careful not to use scare tactics. The effort was aided by a coalition of supporters, including Tommy Quinby’s cousin, a member of the school board at the time who urged other cranberry farmers to vote yes.

“Westport has had a lot of committees that went nowhere,” Akerlund tells me, at her home in the dunes south of Westport. “We had this core group of people that said: ‘We’re not giving up.'”

Though the local economy seems stable, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties still rank among the state’s lowest in per capita income and highest in unemployment. The Quinbys’ cranberry operation might be the region’s biggest, but everyone works multiple jobs, says Tommy, whose side gig is as a CPA. One of his brothers is a teacher. Another fishes part of the year, and their dad worked two decades for the city, a job he took when the bottom fell out of the cranberry market.

“People here aren’t rich,” Akerlund says. “But they’re fiercely independent, they believe in education and they want to protect their kids.”

EVERY COMMUNITY HAS its own dynamic, but the difference between Westport and Ocean Shores, just across the mouth of Grays Harbor, is particularly striking. Dreamed up by a development corporation in the 1960s, that city is dominated by retirees, and dependent on tourism. With even less high ground and more than three times the population at risk as Westport, nearly 60% of Ocean Shores residents nevertheless voted against a bond measure in 2022 that would have moved one school to high ground and added evacuation structures at others. And in an acrimonious meeting last January, the school board rejected state funding for a tsunami tower near the elementary school. Some people objected because the tower wouldn’t benefit them. The Daily World, of Aberdeen, reports one attendee suggested children be issued tsunami survival spheres instead.

Not everyone in the South Beach area is convinced the tsunami threat is real or worth spending money on. But the region has avoided that level of polarization, says Harry Carthum, chair of the local Tsunami Safety Committee and owner of Little Richard’s Donuts across the street from the marina.

“People can have vastly different religious and political beliefs here, but they are united with a common respect for this unique area.”

THE COMMUNITY’S SPIRIT is on display Friday night, as the Ocosta Wildcats host the Toutle Lake Fighting Ducks at the annual homecoming game. Tommy Quinby and his wife are here with their small sons. Older children run back and forth in packs. The high-school kids who covered the earthquake drill yesterday are back on the news beat, taking photographs and notes.

“It’s very small-town,” says school superintendent Heather Sweet, who’s watching from the sidelines. “It’s people who love it here and want to stay.”

That the crowd happens to be gathered in the most tsunami-safe spot around doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s mind, and why should it be? Subduction zone quakes and tsunamis are rare events. Some portion of the offshore fault appears to have ruptured roughly every 250 years, with the most powerful quakes occurring every 430 years, on average. Jan. 26 marks the 324th anniversary of the last one, in the year 1700.

Rather than building a simple tower that might not get used for decades, Westport hopes to follow the schools’ example and integrate its next evacuation structure into a park and event stage where the city can host concerts and other festivities. The goal is to provide refuge for more than 1,000 people.

The next three towers can be much smaller to cover specific neighborhoods. Goodrich envisions a standard design, perhaps modeled after the tribe’s. He’s hoping federal and state grants will provide the bulk of the funding, without having to burden residents with more taxes.

Another UW collaboration called Project Safe Haven estimates Washington will need at least 56 towers to protect residents of low-lying coastal areas, and some of those other communities are trying to regroup and find a path forward. Ocean Shores, which had originally hoped to use nearly $5 million in FEMA and state funding to build a tower big enough for 800 people, is now scaling back the design in the face of inflation and is determined to get it built this time around.

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But if anyone were laying odds on the Northwest beach town that will be the first to have enough refuges for its entire population, Westport still would be the best bet. Meanwhile, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe is preparing to move elder housing and administrative offices to high ground.

“It’s a way of thinking,” says Nelson, the chairwoman. “You can’t always think about yourself. You have to think about the people who will come after you.”

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