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With No High Ground, Ocean Shores Considers How To Escape A Tsunami

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
A tsunami warning siren in Ocean Shores, Washington.

Ocean Shores, Washington, has no natural high ground inside its city limits. On Tuesday night, residents will meet with government and university experts to discuss whether to build a tsunami evacuation platform as in a few other Northwest coastal towns.

This spring, Oregon State University broke ground on a new marine studies building in Newport, which will have a wide ramp to a safe haven on the roof. And the new gym at Ocosta Elementary School in Westport, Washington, has a reinforced roof that can double as a tsunami refuge for 1,000 people, the first of its kind in North America.

In Ocean Shores, Mayor Pro Tem Jon Martin said he used to be fatalistic about the tsunami threat, but now he believes fleeing upward like that could be a good answer. 

"We need to get a plan together,” Martin said. “There definitely is survivability if we plan for it." 

Credit USGS -
At left, estimated pedestrian travel times to escape to high ground after a big earthquake. Right, possible locations in Ocean Shores for tsunami vertical evacuation structures proposed at a community meeting.

Martin said the city council has no pre-cooked idea for what sort of vertical evacuation structure to build or where in Ocean Shores to build it.

Washington State Emergency Management Division Earthquake Program Manager Maximilian Dixon will moderate Tuesday's public forum about tsunami evacuation. 

“This is exciting not just for Ocean Shores, but for the entire state,” Dixon said in an agency blog post. “The more vertical evacuation structures we can build in the most vulnerable locations along our coast, the more lives we will save when a tsunami eventually hits. This is just a start, though. We need many more discussions and many more of these structures built up and down the coast.” 

Martin said his small city, population 5,831, would look first to the federal government for financial help if the community demonstrates enthusiasm to build a vertical evacuation structure. He hoped the State of Washington would kick in support as well. The city would probably have to contribute matching funds. 

Martin said at the very least, the city council should set aside money in its next budget to update the city's tsunami evacuation plan and look at "all options" to help more residents and tourists escape. He said ultimately the best solution could be a tall parking garage, which would solve multiple needs. 

"But the estimates we've gotten for that are just way out of what the city could afford," Martin said. 

A man-made earthen hill or berm with room for hundreds of people to assemble on a flat top could be a more realistic near-term option. A sturdy lookout tower has also been suggested. Another possibility would be to modify the top floor of the existing North Beach Jr/Senior High School at the edge of town so that people could safely escape up onto the roof. 

Updated tsunami inundation maps published in March show all of Ocean Shores, most of the Long Beach Peninsula and downtown Aberdeen and Hoquiam could be more than six feet under water after a major offshore Cascadia subduction zone earthquake. 

Six years ago, a University of Washington-led study called Project Safe Haven estimated that Ocean Shores could need around 19 towers, berms or other reinforced evacuation structures to be accessible by foot to the entire peak-season population of the long, flat and narrow peninsula.

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.