Schools in the coastal communities of Grays Harbor are doing their best to prepare for as little loss of life as possible in the event of a devastating earthquake — especially one off of the coast — and the tsunami that could follow.
However, in the wake of Thursday’s Great Shakeout earthquake drill, some are still finding that they are not as prepared as they would like to be.
Unlike Aberdeen and Hoquiam, certain districts, like North Beach and Ocosta, find themselves in precarious situations, with no ability to climb to higher ground and often structures built before such natural forces were taken into consideration.
A new mega-quake scenario by CREW, the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, shows an estimated 20 to 30 minutes before a tsunami were a large earthquake to occur in the nearby Cascadia Subduction Zone. The report predicts a one in 10 chance of such an earthquake occurring within the next 50 years, and that more than 10,000 people could perish and more than triple that amount could be injured in its wake.
The vulnerability of the Harbor’s beach communities is painfully clear. With no real high ground to evacuate to, going up to the higher floors of existing buildings is the only option. But the Ocosta School District is forging ahead with a new idea.
Ocosta voters approved a $13.8 million bond measure earlier this year for the construction of a new school that will include a first-of-its kind “vertical evacuation refuge” built into the structure of the new gym, according to district Superintendent Paula Akerlund.
The structure would be the first in the nation. It will be built high enough to withstand the strongest tsunami surges and will be able to host more than 1,000 people on the roof. But, Akerlund hopes some grant funds will help expand the project to help even more people. The district is currently in the process of trying to get a $2.25 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to extend the size and scope of the project.
“We are doing what we can to create the safest situation possible,” she said, adding that while the extra money from FEMA is a “long shot” because of the organization’s limited work with tsunami preparations, their project was ranked No. 1 out of the top five considered sub-applications for funding in the 2013 fiscal year. “Because if, God forbid, it (a Cascadia Subduction-zone earthquake) should ever happen, we wouldn’t have time, plus we wouldn’t have a bridge to get across.”
The grant looks to extend the project’s capabilities and size so that 1,500, including many Westport residents, will fit.
“It will be a lot more security,” said Akerlund, of the incoming structure’s impact on the school. Currently it is still in its planning stages, determining what kind of foundation and structural elements will be needed to withstand changes to the soil and other issues due to the potential earthquake/tsunami combo.
“It will be engineered as well as it can be to meet those conditions,” she said.
Akerlund said they are expected to start construction next summer.
Currently, Ocosta children drill for earthquakes and tsunamis by dropping to the floor, covering and holding and then evacuating vertically — to the second floor of the high school. It is a shaky solution, but one they will have to rely on until the new structure is built.
“I checked with some structural engineers who seemed to think the building would get through an earthquake,” she said of the district’s current plan. “If that was not possible, we would get up on other buildings as high as we could since we have no natural high ground.”
Some buildings within the North Beach School District are in the same situation — having to evacuate to their second floors.
North Beach Co-Superintendent Dave Wayman says it’s a “matter of opinion,” as to if these plans are safe.
“It would depend on the magnitude, we have contingency plans for even going on the roof if need be,” he said. “That’s the plan for today.”
He said if there was structural damage they would leave the building and “get as far away as possible.”
“If the building is still standing and there’s not a lot of time, we would go back in the building,” he said, adding there is also a plan in place for buses to aid in evacuation if the building were too dangerous to enter, let alone climb within it. “It’s one of the things we have to evaluate.”
Akerlund said the most “absolute thing” districts could do to ensure safety would be to move entire campuses to higher ground. Voters in Seaside, Ore., will vote on a $128.8 million bond for that exact purpose in November, to move their entire campus into the hills. However, Akerlund does not see such a scenario working for her district.
“Our tax base here, how could we?” she said, adding they are doing everything they can to the extent voters will allow them. Voters did decide that the refuge was important, voting yes on the bond after two previous measures that did not include it within the building’s upgrade failed.
Wayman said that while North Beach built a new elementary school about six years ago, in the future they hope to consider earthquakes and tsunamis to an even greater extent.
“(It’s) right here on the beach … In the future we would do, like every community along the coast line is, and look for a higher place,” he said. “They are things that we are constantly looking at.
“Hopefully it doesn’t happen and our people are trained enough,” he added.