Ocosta tsunami school hopes to be example for coastal communities

Ocosta students use golden clam guns to break ground on a new school that will double as a tsunami evacuation structure at Westport.
Ocosta students use golden clam guns to break ground on a new school that will double as a tsunami evacuation structure at Westport.

Students armed with golden clam guns broke ground on the nation’s first vertical evacuation structure at Westport Thursday, kicking off construction of a project emergency officials hope will be imitated along the Cascadia subduction zone.

The Ocosta School District is building a new elementary school in Westport that includes the tsunami refuge atop the gymnasium.

Westport lies just off the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile-long fault that runs from northern California to Vancouver Island, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis.

When built, the tsunami refuge will be capable of holding more than 1,000 people atop the 30-foot building designed to withstand both a megathrust Cascadia earthquake and the pounding of tsunami waves.

“If a tsunami were to strike, there wouldn’t be much time to get to higher ground,” said Tim Walsh, chief hazards geologist for the Washington State Geologic Survey. “So we wanted to find a way to make higher ground closer to the coast.”

Construction is scheduled to finish in August.

Walsh was a part of the refuge’s design team, joined by Degenkolb Engineers and TCF Architecture, through the efforts of Project Safe Haven, which was launched by the Washington State Emergency Management Division in 2011.

Chief Hazards Geologist Tim Walsh of DNR, left, talks tsunamis with Ocosta School Superintendent Paula Akerlund, center, Ted Buehner, warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle.
Chief Hazards Geologist Tim Walsh of DNR, left, talks tsunamis with Ocosta School Superintendent Paula Akerlund, center, Ted Buehner, warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle.

Model tsunami scenarios were developed by University of Washington applied mathematics professors in consultation with Walsh.

Major General Bret Daugherty, Adjutant General of Washington Army and Air National Guard forces and director of the state’s Emergency Management division, said he hopes the tsunami refuge will be an “example for the rest of our coastal communities.”

Residents in Long Beach are already studying the feasibility of building a landscaped berm to replace existing bleachers on a playfield to hold about 800 people above the tsunami zone during an emergency.

As the official geologic survey of the state, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Division of Geology and Earth Sciences is responsible for monitoring, assessing, and researching geologic events and keeping the public, industry, and government informed about the nature of the land around us.