With the threat of a large earthquake and tsunami looming, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe is constructing the first tsunami tower in North America.
By Rebecca Owen, Science Writer (@beccapox)
Citation: Owen, R., 2022, Washington tribe prepares for waves, welcomes all,, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.236
Visitors and residents alike can imagine the damage that will occur in the Pacific Northwest when the Cascadia Subduction Zone finally releases three hundred years of tectonic stress with a powerful earthquake. When the Big One strikes, a thirty-foot surge of water from a tsunami is sure to follow a half hour later. Some stretches of Washington’s coastline are well-equipped to weather such a surge because of their natural protection of steep cliffs, dense forest and rocky beach. Others, like peninsulas off the southern Washington coast, will be decimated. Should the ground shake, everyone needs to get away from the ocean. Fast. But, where does one go on a sea-level spit of land where higher ground is more than two miles away?
Funding Mitigation Measures
The town of Long Beach, Washington, with its bumper cars, kite stores, and museum of taxidermic oddities, sits on a skinny, twenty-eight-mile long peninsula of the same name. Walking from Long Beach’s touristy downtown to high ground could take anywhere from 15 to 69 minutes, assuming the roads aren’t blocked with debris and residents are mobile enough to trek to safety.
Long Beach has nearly 2,000 full-time residents. “But on our outer coast, populations fluctuate so much,” says Elyssa Tappero, Tsunami Program Coordinator for the Washington Emergency Management Division. “You have almost no tourists in the winter, but on a nice summer day, Long Beach could have 100,000 people.”
Over the years, city and state officials have proposed evacuation options for the Long Beach Peninsula ranging from building twenty-four towers and parking garages to house up to 10,000 residents and tourists, to equipping neighborhoods with floating tsunami pods. A more recent and realistic design proposal, in 2018, was to build a berm, an acre-long artificial hill made of dirt, concrete, and reinforced steel. Its flat top would hold 850 evacuees, including all the children at a nearby elementary school. However, cost, practicality and updated predictions forecasting higher water levels in the wake of a tsunami make these types of plans less than feasible.
Another option for coastal communities is to build vertical evacuation towers. Similar to structures in Japan and New Zealand, these towers would be strong enough to withstand a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks or liquefaction, and provide coastal residents with a safe place to climb above the waves of a tsunami. In a 2021 report, the Washington Emergency Management Division and the University of Washington identified a need for a minimum of 58 and up to 82 vertical evacuation towers placed throughout three counties of Washington’s southern coastline. “We want to cover as many people as possible,” Tappero says.
The report also pinpoints possible tower sites, and lays out a blueprint for towns to plan and fund them. But having a solid plan doesn’t necessarily mean the towers will be built. “These communities are tired of being told that they have a risk,” Tappero says. “When they see a press release come out that says ‘We need 58 of these things!’ they assume that means they are on their own for the cost.”
For those who question the viability of building such a structure because of lack of funds, Tappero mentions how FEMA has redesigned their hazard mitigation grant program in a way that would benefit Washington’s coastal towns. “Vertical evacuation structures are high on their list of things to fund, so if a community applies and they put together a pretty polished application, there’s a good chance they’ll be funded,” she says. “There’s a good chance we can help them.”
Willapa Bay separates the Long Beach Peninsula from mainland Washington. At the north end of the bay, several strips of land jut into the water like fingers. One finger is home to the tiny town of Tokeland and the Shoalwater Bay Reservation. The Tokeland Peninsula faces the same dangers as its neighbor to the south, but instead of being hindered by indecision, this peninsula is prepared.
By Spring 2022, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe plans to debut the first vertical evacuation tower in North America. Other buildings are designated as safe havens along the Washington coastline, including an elementary school rooftop serving as a community evacuation site fifteen miles north, in Westport, but Tokeland’s tower will be the first structure built exclusively for escape from the quick-rising water of a tsunami. But the tower isn’t only for tribal members — it will serve the entire Tokeland peninsula.
“We know what’s coming,” says Shoalwater Bay Tribe Planner Jamie Judkins. She wrote the $2.2 million FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant that funded the Tribe’s tower planning and construction. The Tribe contributed another $1 million. “This was originally our land, and we want to take care of the people on it, and the people around our tribe are also part of our community,” she says. “We’re not so worried about the reservation itself, but the people who live in Tokeland — there’s nothing for them.”
The town of Tokeland is three miles away from the reservation. While approximately one hundred people live on reservation land, close to two hundred residents live on the tiny strip of land that extends into the bay. Many homes are within a half to quarter mile of high ground, but to get there, residents would need to cross a marsh. Tokeland also has a casino, a hotel and an RV park that fill in the summer months with tourists. The vertical evacuation tower will be a fifteen-minute walk from Tokeland’s city center, the farthest northeastern edge of the reservation. All Tokeland’s residents, tribal members or not, have equal access. The latest predictions call for a tsunami to arrive on the Tokeland peninsula 25 to 30 minutes after the earthquake.
Tribe’s Safety Tower
Picture a 55-foot-tall parking garage. After an earthquake and before the tsunami, evacuees climb six flights of stairs to the first of two 50-foot-wide platforms. The lower platform’s benches double as cabinets to hold necessary food and supplies. The upper platform can serve as both a helicopter landing pad and as a roof to shield evacuees from the rain. The tower isn’t meant to house residents for a long period of time; it’s meant to keep them out of harm’s way during a tsunami. The tribe has also parked shipping containers with food, water, and medical supplies all over reservation land in case assistance is delayed.
The tower holds 400 people on its two levels, offering its users 10 square feet of personal space, as per FEMA guidelines, according to the Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s Director of Emergency Management, Ken Ufkin. In reality, he says, the structure could hold as many people that could safely gather. “Somebody’s going to help you up the stairs,” Ufkin says about residents or visitors with mobility concerns. “You’re not going to be the only one going up there.”
In May 2021, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe broke ground for their vertical evacuation structure after a year of delays. “Just getting the 51-foot foundational footers in the ground was a challenge,” Ufkin says. The tower’s base and support had to be redesigned based on a soil study, and then COVID-19 halted construction across Washington State for many of the dry months of the year. “And because of the challenge sourcing steel right now, it’s been one challenge after the next.” But, Ufkin says, “Once the above-grade columns arrive, construction should take a noticeable and fairly rapid pace toward completion.” By spring 2022, the tower should be nearly finished, should the peninsula’s residents or tourists need it. “It never ceases to impress me how the tribe considers the rest of the community in their planning,” he says.
Throughout southern Washington’s coastal peninsulas, roads are dotted with blue tsunami evacuation route signs directing visitors and residents to higher ground. Beach grass rustles in the wind. Kids and dogs dash into the surf. Rain falls in sideways bursts. Below ground, tectonic plates continue their slow collision. The ocean is cold and calm — for now. Soon, at least one small community will be ready to help all residents and visitors climb to safety when the ground shakes and water consumes the coastline.
Washington Emergency Management Division and University of Washington Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research (August 2021). A guide to tsunami vertical evacuation options on the Washington Coast, Volume 1: Pacific County. https://mil.wa.gov/asset/618300c00353d