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Persistence and Opportunity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Chuck Wallace
June 4, 2018

This is a story of persistence, opportunity, failure and success by a group of dedicated scientists, geologists, hazard modelers, engineers, architects and educators who continued to fight and strive for change for decades. They persisted in the face of great adversity and a myriad of opponents who told them their project vision was unachievable. Through devotion, dogged determination and yes, stubbornness they managed to make what was once thought of as unachievable, possible.

Beginning in the early 1980’s this dedicated and persistent group began discussing the prospect of constructing vertical evacuation safe haven structures in communities that lack accessible high ground, to escape approaching tsunami waves along the west coast of the United States. There was great consensus among the participants that such projects were essential in an effort to save lives of countless residents and visitors to numerous coastal communities. They also agreed there were major barriers ahead.

Tremendous work needed to be conducted to determine tsunami inundation at specific sites and development of tsunami wave impact engineering for buildings, towers and berms. Efforts would also include how to design such structures so they are appealing to look at and how to provide clear and concise information to government officials and people living in inundation areas to gain support for such projects. Another huge hurdle would be convincing FEMA to support such structure construction, as well as, the biggest hurdle of all, who would pay for all of the work involved.

Months, years and decades passed with slow, yet positive movement forward. Then, in the mid-2000s, the group pushed forward and developed the innovative Project Safe Haven Project. The program includes a series of workshops presented to specific coastal communities identified as, at risk to the impact of tsunami. Using residents and government officials of the selected coastal communities to identify specific sites to build, (according to a specified walking distance based upon modeled first arriving tsunami wave impact time), they were then asked to choose and design a specific type of vertical evacuation structure, building, berm or tower.

In March of 2011, the persistence of the group paid off and Project Safe Haven was introduced to numerous cities and tribal nations along the Washington coast. March 11, 2011, was the first workshop held in the city of Ocean Shores, Washington, and a city with no natural high ground and with the precarious distinction of being identified as a site where tsunami inundation models show tsunami waves will overtop the entire city.

Around 30 participants took part in the first day’s workshop. That evening, one of the most disastrous events to occur in modern times, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (sometimes referred to as the Tohoku Earthquake) occurred.

Needless to say, the subsequent workshops were packed with people wanting to participate in the project. Everybody wanted to be part of the planning and hopefully the design and construction of a vertical evacuation structure in their community. Over a six week period, all of the workshops in the various cities were completed. But, once the workshops were complete, the elation and anticipation of possible projects sprouting up along the coast, protecting people slowly disappeared. Nothing happened. Not one community moved forward. As each day advanced farther away from the workshop completion, less and less was talked about in the news or at social gatherings, to the point it was virtually forgotten by the communities and government officials.

Almost a full year from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, on a Sunday morning, opportunity presented itself. I read about the Ocosta Elementary School considering to rebuild a much needed elementary school, which served five communities along the South Beach of Grays Harbor County, WA. The school sat in an area where numerous tsunami inundation models showed impact to the school, (the School district campus also includes a JR/SR high school within a few hundred yards).

I met with the superintendent the next week and she told me said they had been interested in such a project but didn’t quite know how to get it started. I told her I knew people who did, and a week later, Washington State Emergency Management Division, scientists, geologists, hazard modelers, engineers, architects and educators descended upon the school district campus to pitch their proposal. The meeting marked the beginning of the Ocosta Elementary School Project.

Ocosta Elementary School, Westport WA, North America’s First Vertical Evacuation, Tsunami Engineered, Safe Haven Building. Dedicated June 11, 2016.

On June 11, 2016, North America’s first Vertical Evacuation, Tsunami Engineered, Safe Haven Building was dedicated at the Ocosta Elementary School. It marked the culmination of a life’s work and perseverance by many of the original group of scientists, geologists, hazard modelers, engineers, architects, educators and their replacements. They have made history.

As of this date, there are five more projects in the planning phase in Grays Harbor County.

Author: Chuck Wallace is a Past-President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA) He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [email protected].

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