Coastal Washington School Preps for Potential Tsunami

WESTPORT, Wash. — Ocosta Elementary School in Westport, Wash. recently announced plans to construct a building capable of withstanding a potential tsunami. The school, located in Grays Harbor County and situated less than a mile from the Pacific coast, broke ground in January on a new gymnasium with a durable, reinforced roof that will allow the structure to serve as a tsunami refuge. The building is the first of its kind in both the United States and in North America.

Due to the community’s relative proximity to the 700-mile-long Cascadia Subduction Zone, a tsunami could hit the Washington coastline less than half an hour after an earthquake event. This could put the low-lying community’s elementary, middle and high schools, which were built on dunes less than 30 feet above sea level, at a severe height disadvantage. Additionally, all three schools sit on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a bridge that is likely to sustain considerable damage in the event of a major earthquake.

Based on University of Washington research that shows tsunami levels are not likely to exceed 39 feet above sea level, the elementary school’s soon-to-be-built gymnasium will rise 55 feet, offering an extra 14 feet of clearance. When completed, the structure will also be able to withstand anticipated tsunami forces and hold approximately 1,000 people on the roof, including students, faculty and Westport community members.

The Gray Harbor County Public School System serves approximately 700 students, and — as the community’s middle and high schools are also directly adjacent — the whole public school system will be able to utilize the shelter. The project was approved the community in the beginning of 2013 and will cost nearly $14 million.

The forward-thinking project has also spurred counties in other Pacific Coast states, particularly those in Washington and Oregon, to consider similar structures.

“It’s really exciting that the first tsunami vertical-evacuation refuge in the United States is going to be built here in Washington,” John Schelling, earthquake and tsunami program manager for the Washington Emergency Management Division, told the Seattle Times in October 2013. “My hope is that this really serves as a catalyst up and down the coast.”