Ocean Shores, state work to move forward on tsunami tower

Mar. 23—"Standing where we are, right now, the tsunami will arrive in 35 minutes and will be 35 feet tall," said Corina Allen, the Chief Hazards Geologist for the Washington Geological Survey before a school board meeting of the North Beach School District on Tuesday evening. "From Ocean Shores Elementary, it's almost 90 minutes to high ground."

A contentious crowd had gathered at North Beach Junior Senior High School that evening, many drawn by the presence in the discussion items agenda of the tsunami tower that drew so much opprobrium from members of the public in January, when the city of Ocean Shores came to the school board with a request to act as a pass-through for funds from the the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to the city to build a long-planned tsunami tower near Ocean Shores Elementary School.

The memorandum was defeated by a 3-1 vote by the school board that night, stymieing years of grant applications and planning. That vote has generated some kickback from the public, said board President Jeff Albertson.

"We definitely are getting a lot of feedback, both pro and con, from the public. That was true again yesterday," Albertson said. "We had unusually high turnout at our board meeting. It generates a ton of passion in Ocean Shores, any time the topic of a tsunami tower comes up."

The school board's position hasn't changed since the January vote, Albertson said, but the board is providing the update on its interaction with the city to keep the public informed.

"We just sort of gave a brief update on correspondence with the city," Albertson said. "It had generated so much interest for the public."

Now, the city and the state organizations pushing for the construction of the tower are working to find the way forward.

Changes in attitude

Public support for the tower on Tuesday was much more apparent than the January meeting, when an organized bloc of speakers presented a number of arguments against construction of the tower, with varying apparent levels of validity.

"As a parent of a baby in the Ocean Shores Elementary daycare, and as a teacher there, I think your decision not to partner with Ocean Shores was not a good choice," said teacher Haley Stoney, speaking on Tuesday. "This tower is not being built with school district money. It is millions of dollars that is allocated by the state to serve the places with highest risk."

Other speakers continued to cite the process of getting the grant money as a muddled one, and offered a variety of other dissenting opinions against the tower, ranging from the location of the tower, to the need to retrofit other school structures, to the more outlandish.

"Moving traumatized students over a quarter mile is not a practical option whatsoever," said Jane Shattuck, who also argued vocally against the tower in the January meeting. "Using students as leverage for a project that does not benefit them is not acceptable."

A substantial number of speakers at the meeting, many of whom were in education jobs or worked at Ocean Shores Elementary itself, spoke passionately in support of the tower, and urged the board to rethink the initial vote declining to act as the pass-through for the tower funding.

"I teach over at Ocean Shores Elementary, fifth grade," said Lisa Samson. "As a teacher who cares about her students and a member of the community, I urge you to reconsider your no vote."

The school's current plan for surviving a tsunami, which is to climb onto the roofspace of certain classrooms in the elementary school, is wildly insufficient, Samson said, in terms of both practicality and even in space for students or accessibility for physically limited students.

"This plan is ridiculous and not anywhere near adequate to protect our students and our staff," Samson said.

Protecting the children by getting the tower should be a huge priority for all involved, Stoney said.

"Do you know how often we practice climbing into the ceiling of specific classrooms as is our current tsunami plan? We don't," Stoney said. "Those that have chosen to live here with the possibility of tragedy, made that choice. But others did not make that choice."

Spirit of compromise

Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin reiterated his willingness to work with other agencies to get the tower built.

"I am committed to working with the school district," Martin said during the board meeting Tuesday. "We have a plan to move the tower as close as we can to the school."

Moving the tower is not as simple as picking somewhere new to plonk it down on the map, said Ocean Shores city Administrator Scott Andersen. Building a tower requires lots of data before construction even begins, like assessing the hydrology, soil surveys and drilling to assess its viability, Andersen said.

"We told them if they need a little extra money to do that additional work, we'd provide more funding to the partnership between the city dollars and federal dollars," said Randy Newman, OSPI's director of school facilities.

OSPI will shoulder the cost of the extra prep work necessary to move the proposed tower location closer to the elementary school, cutting the walking time down to 6 to 8 minutes from the school to the tower.

"We are willing to do anything we can do realistically in order to guarantee this is in a location and place where kids have access to it," Andersen said. "We're doing our best to assuage and mitigate any concerns they have."

The money for the project comes from a pot of money specifically earmarked for geologic hazards, said Scott Black, program development manager for OPSI.

"These are capital funds from a program specifically from seismic (safety programs)," Black said. "There's no money away from educational funds."

Living on the sand

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a plate boundary off the coast of Washington. According to Allen, the state is more than due for a serious seismic event, which could create a tsunami that would batter the coast.

Ocean Shores residents are at a higher risk than most, by both the low-lying nature of the peninsula and the extended evacuation time it would take to get to higher ground.

"We completed a very robust assessment of how many vertical evacuation structures are needed in Washington state," said Maximilian Dixon, the state's Emergency Management Division Hazards and Outreach Program supervisor, in a phone interview. "Specifically in Ocean Shores, we need 23. There's really no possibility of the folks in Ocean Shores being able to walk to high ground in time."

The state is pushing hard to get the towers built, said Elyssa Tappero, the tsunami program coordinator for the state's Emergency Management Division.

"We feel very strongly about vetting these towers because we need so many of these out on the outer coast," Tappero said as she videoconferenced in to the board meeting Tuesday. "We know where these towers need to go. We just need to get the funding."

Resident and former state geologist Scott Cameron spoke in support of the tower — and concurred with the assessment of the titanic threat offshore.

"I've worked with Corina and her team on geologic issues. I can vouch that she is right on about the issues here," Cameron said. "FEMA has assessed the number one risk factor is the subduction zone right offshore. It's absolutely crucial we take the steps to make our community safe. That starts with our kids."

The coastal schools are the highest risk, Newman said, so OSPI is leading with those for retrofits and construction.

"We consulted with our school seismic safety committee," Newman said. "Since schools on the coast have both a tsunami risk and an earthquake risk, we decided to focus on the coast."

Leading the way

Getting this first tower built is key, not just for protecting the Ocean Shores Elementary area, but for providing an example for the area and other communities on the coast on how to move forward, Dixon said.

"This is the project. It is fully funded. A ton of people are going to work on it. It is going to save lives. It is going to save your children's lives," Dixon said. "We can save as many people as possible. We have to start with this first tower. We have to do this together."

By getting the first tower, not only will more residents be protected, it shows residents the process of how more will be built, streamlining the process and giving a physical example, Dixon said. The Ocean Shores area needs more than 20 vertical evacuation structures to account for its population, Dixon said, without even beginning to factor tourists that may be in the area.

"It's essential that we get this approved and built," Dixon said. "Building that first structure is essential to building the other 22."

To help educate residents who may have questions about the towers, the risk, or parts of the process, the Emergency Management Division is going to be working with the city and other organizations to hold "tsunami roadshows," educational events to demystify the process, Dixon said. OSPI and engineers involved in the project will also take part, Newman said.

"We did tsunami roadshows before COVID," Dixon said. "There's a lot of new people there. We have to get back and educate people again."

The roadshows are likely going to be in late April or early May, Dixon said, though the division and city are still working on hashing out a date.

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@thedailyworld.com.