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Washington tribe's tsunami evacuation tower could become model for the nation

The tower in Tokeland will be available in an emergency to tribal members and non-tribal residents who live off the reservation at the southern end of the peninsula.

TOKELAND, Wash. — Ceremonial groundbreaking and land clearing for the first dedicated tsunami evacuation tower has begun in the coastal community of Tokeland on land belonging to the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe.  

The tower will be available in an emergency to tribal members and non-tribal residents who live off the reservation at the southern end of the peninsula.

With its expected completion by the end of 2021, it becomes the second or third tsunami evacuation structure in Washington state and even in North America. 

Washington is leading North America in tsunami evacuation structures. In 2017, the Ocosta School District opened a new school where a local bond issue paid for incorporating the ability to provide refuge from tsunami waves.   

Urgency to save lives in coastal communities is building as scientists learn more about the dangers along Washington’s coast from a subduction zone earthquake. Subduction zone earthquakes trigger tsunamis. The most visible and well-documented example of which happened in March 2011 in northeastern Japan – a disaster that killed more than 16,000 people by some estimates with the vast majority of lives lost to tsunami waves.

Washington’s last subduction zone earthquake was recorded in January 1700, documented in part by the Japanese who recorded a tsunami that wiped out coastal villages but had no apparent cause that anybody felt in Japan. 

Tribal stories, including those told within the Shoalwater Tribe, also speak of a great flood. 

Tree ring data found in dead trees on the Washington and Oregon coasts along with sand deposits trapped in mud also help date this and other tsunamis, some of which occurred less than 300 years apart.

RELATED: Ghost forest reveals clues to the Cascadia Subduction Zone’s last earthquake

The location of the tower is about two blocks from the beach on the low-lying peninsula where Tokeland sits. Tribal members and others already have an option to reach a high bluff at the north end of their community, but the peninsula is too long for many people to be able to reach naturally higher ground by foot. The use of cars is considered tricky, as the earthquake likely to measure as magnitude 9 could well destroy and block roads.   

Emergency managers say people should wait to move until the earthquake shaking stops and may have as little as 15 to 20 minutes before the first tsunami wave arrives. 

In Tokeland, the Washington Geological Survey says there could be as much as 30 minutes, with wave heights reaching as high as 16 feet above ground level at the tower site. Pilings to support the tower and resist a type of soil instability caused by the shaking are expected to go down 50 feet.

Lee Shipman, a tribal member and now-retired head of the tribe’s emergency management office, got the process to build the tower rolling as the tribe began raising $1 million toward construction.  

Shoalwater Bay’s efforts along with Washington State Emergency Management brought in Region X of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided another $2.5 million in grant money for construction. That collaboration led to a process to get more towers funded and built, and currently, the larger communities of Ocean Shores and Westport are moving forward with their own plans for multiple towers to protect their populations.