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Coastal Village Moving To Higher Ground To Escape Tsunami, Flooding Threat

The rare but ever-present risk of a tsunami has worried people along the Pacific Northwest coast for years. Different communities are working on moving critical facilities to higher ground.

Years of talk and planning is turning to action this month at La Push, Washington. The Quileute Tribe has begun logging and road building to relocate its coastal village out of the tsunami and flood zone, starting with the Quileute Tribal School.

Scrounging up money to move the rest of village will take many years. But the fact they’ve broken ground now makes tribal Councilmember James Jackson Sr. feel good.

"You know, just to see the timber on the ground up there, it's a wonderful thing to see—to be able to try to get everybody up to safety,” he said. “Because you never know when that's going to happen. You don't want it to happen, but if we can prevent it -- save lives -- I mean that's the ultimate goal."

A special website created for the Quileute Tribe's "Move to Higher Ground" project lays out the stakes starkly. "Relocating the tribal school to higher ground is truly a matter of life or death for the Quileute people," it reads.

‘The heart will stay in the lower village’

It took an act of Congress in 2012 to make it possible for the loggers, truck drivers and dozer operators to go to work. The Quileutes lobbied to tweak the boundaries of Olympic National Park to add higher elevations to the then one square mile reservation. The reservation is surrounded by national park on three sides and the ocean on the fourth.

The tribe says no residents in their small fishing village will be forced to relocate. Some elders in the lower village told me they support moving the school, but they personally intend to stay.

"The majority of people that are down here now are going to stay here because they don't want to uproot,” said Quileute elder Beverly Loudon. "They've been here for many, many generations. So they probably won't even care if they get washed away or whatever."

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Quileute elder Beverly Loudon supports the ''Move To Higher Ground'' initiative, but plans to stay put in the lower village herself.

Some marine-related businesses will also stay put such as marina facilities, a restaurant, the U.S. Coast Guard station and the tribally-owned Oceanside Resort.

Project manager Susan Devine said the tribe's priorities are to get children out of harm's way first by moving the school, then the elders by relocating the senior center, and then government offices and housing.

"The heart will stay in the lower village,” Devine said. “But the day-to-day functions, the safety of where the children are living and going to school, where people's jobs are, they will move up to higher ground."

Devine said only the relocation of the tribal school is financed, thanks mostly to money from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Quileutes secured through a highly-competitive grant application.

‘You don't know when it's coming’

The tribe achieved a certain measure of celebrity over the past decade by virtue of being the home to a fictional band of werewolves in the bestselling Twilight vampire saga. The tribe leveraged that to get the attention of Congress, but the Twilight franchise hasn't netted the Quileutes any money for their village relocation.

The master plan for the new upper village in the Quileute "Move to Higher Ground" resembles a typical suburban development with functional clusters and houses on cul-de-sacs and looping roads across 278 acres.

Credit Quileute Nation
Quileute Nation
Rendering of the future upper village. The new school is at lower right.

"We could provide in this scenario for about 280 additional housing units," Devine said about the still-evolving plan. "I think in the long run you'll see multifamily, assisted living, transitional housing, elder housing as well as single family homes. But those are all decisions yet to be made by the community."

"We forecast really decades of time that this could take overall," added Larry Burtness, the tribe's planner and grant writer. "A lot of it is driven by available funding. For the school, we were able to secure a substantial amount of funding that allows it to move forward.”

Right now, Quileute Tribal School Superintendent Mark Jacobson has a view to die for. He'd prefer that stay just as a figure of speech.

Out his window, the waves crash on a majestic beach framed by craggy islands. Eagles periodically fly by.

"I can hit a golf ball from my office into the surf,” he said.” And I'm no Tiger Woods.”

But invisible, just beyond the horizon, is the Cascadia earthquake fault. Geologists think it is primed to unleash a megaquake and tsunami.

"It's beautiful today, but what about if I see that big wave coming,” Jacobson said. “It wouldn't be very pretty then. It would be pretty disastrous and pretty frightening."

He said thinks about it every day.

“Not a day goes by I don't think about that because you don't know when it's coming,” Jacobson said.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Quileute Tribal School Superintendent Mark Jacobson has a view of the ocean surf from his office.

The future K-12 school campus is emerging from second-growth forest at an elevation of 250 feet, well out of reach of the worst-case tsunami. Under the current schedule, the new tribal school should be ready to host the Class of 2020's graduation.

Keeping communities safe

The Quileute Tribe is not alone is planning a move to safer ground. Down the coast, the main village of the Quinault Nation, Taholah, is similarly situated at a river mouth facing the ocean. The Quinaults have begun clearing land inland to relocate key buildings.

And in Oregon, voters in Seaside last year approved a bond measure to move three schools—Seaside High School, Broadway Middle School and Gearhart Elementary School—to a new campus out of the tsunami zone.

Quinault Indian Nation Vice President Tyson Johnston said the Taholah village relocation plan could mark a milestone in 2019 with the opening of the Generations Building, which will host a day care, elders program, Head Start and Quinault language program.

"We're not going to force anyone to move," Johnston said, as is the case in La Push. But he said the tribal government would not permit new residential construction in the existing lower village, which lies in the tsunami and flood hazard zone.

"We're trying to do this in a generation," Johnston said. "It’s a lot of money. We've estimated to do everything would cost between $100-150 million. It could be more."

The cost to relocate the vulnerable village far exceeds the tribe's resources, so again like the Quileutes, it is strategizing where it can turn.

"We're trying to access different funding sources: tribal, private, state and federal," Johnston said. "We're trying to be creative and keep our community safe."

Johnston said the lower part of Taholah is home to about 800 to 900 residents. La Push has a total population of less than 500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.