Politics

How politics have stalled tsunami prep efforts on the WA coast

The city of Ocean Shores likewise started planning its first evacuation tower years ago, after the state’s 2014 Safe Haven Project found that it would need 12 to 20 towers to protect the 6,000-plus residents spread across its sandy flats (out of 57 to 85 towers along the entire coast). 

Now, with communication snafus resolved and pandemic delays eased, Ocean Shores is moving ahead. FEMA recently agreed to fund three-quarters of the projected $4.7 million cost, with the state kicking in a 10th. Across the channel, Westport is awaiting FEMA’s decision on the first of four more towers it will need to save its 2,100 people. The first tower will be big and pricey—$15 million-plus — to accommodate the tourists and sportfishers crowding the Westport marina in summer. But Harry Carthum, a retired school superintendent-turned-hotdog-stand owner spearheading the tower effort, argues it will be an economic plus: “We know we lose a certain number of visitors and residents because of all the news about tsunami danger along the West Coast.” Kevin Goodrich, public works director of Westport, boasts that the tower “will be a kind of icon in addition to a safe haven.”

“We’ve really had no pushback,” adds Goodrich. “People here have gotten used to the idea of evacuation, thanks to the [nearby] Ocosta Schools structure.”

That may be the key to winning public support for tsunami protection. Once people see it, they believe it’s necessary and possible. “I noticed all the tornado shelters around Texas,” Kelly notes after returning from a trip there. “What’s different here is, nobody in Washington has ever seen a tsunami.” In person, anyway. Paula Akerlund concedes that Ocosta Schools enjoyed “a big advantage” pitching its tower while images from Tōhoku were still fresh in voters’ minds. In wary Ocean Shores, says city grant manager Sarah Bisson, “I really think it’s going to take a successful build [of a first tower] to build confidence.”

Money is the other big hurdle, especially for small school districts in economically challenged areas like the coast. In its recent session the Legislature moved to ease the burden. It voted unanimously to establish a “school seismic safety grant program” that would cover up to 100% of the costs of vertical refuges and relocations (and seismic upgrades) and allocated an initial $100 million — enough for perhaps three school relocations or a dozen or two towers.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-North Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor, concedes that’s just a downpayment. “We’re talking at least $1 billion, maybe more, over 10, 12, maybe 20 years,” he says, adding, “you can’t commit new legislatures to fund anything.” But he thinks the standing program will provide a strong impetus. “When you have a formalized program that’s in the budget each biennium, it’s going to be very politically difficult to abandon it,” Frockt says. “No one wants to be the governor or Legislature who lost kids in a seismic event.”

While school districts and cities struggle to rouse public support for tsunami defense, nearby Native tribes offer counterexamples of what’s possible when communities pull together. The Quileute Tribe, consigned in 1889 to just a square mile of beachfront at La Push, is now completing a new upland K-12 school on former national park land signed over during the Obama administration. It’s the first step in moving the whole community to a new Upper Village, and apparently the first such tsunami-driven relocation in the country. The Quinault Indian Nation has developed an ambitious master plan to move its entire Taholah Village above the water’s reach.

“Getting to higher ground is nothing new,” says Quinault planner Robert Cardwell. “I believe Raven founded us at the mouth of the river. We’ve been moving upland ever since.” The federal government interrupted that process by building a permanent settlement on the shore. Today, Cardwell adds sardonically, “there’s no division [over relocating] because we’re not paying the taxes.” 

The most remarkable project may be the 50-foot evacuation tower that the little Shoalwater Bay Tribe will inaugurate on Aug. 5. Not so much for what it is — though it is the first such tribal project — as for where it is. 

To ensure its members’ maximum safety, the tribe could have built the tower nearer its tribal center, 1.3 miles farther up the Tokeland Peninsula. Instead, says Shoalwater emergency management director Ken Ufkin, “the tribe opted to put the tower right on the edge of the reservation to make it available to people in Tokeland,” who would otherwise have no hope of escape. “They didn’t have to do that.” The tribe (which has ample casino revenues) covered the $1 million match FEMA required.

“I have yet to hear a complaint or muttering from tribal members about its placement” says Ufkin. 

Sounds too good to be true? The Shoalwaters’ generosity is real, says one off-reservation neighbor, T




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