At first glance, the flat, windswept expanses of beach that frame the fishing town of Westport appear placid, almost soothingly calm. But residents and employees here, like schoolteacher Hollie Tucker, know that the ocean holds darker secrets. “Moving here I honestly didn’t give a thought to tsunamis,” she says. “I mean, yeah, I was aware of it, but we didn’t have a specific plan in case it happened. Starting with the 2004 tsunami in Asia and then after the 2011 in Japan, I really began to learn more about it and it really brought it to the forefront in our communities.”
A tsunami is a series of massive swells of water triggered by an underwater earthquake that surge out from the epicenter at more than 600 miles per hour (a normal wave travels at about 90 mph). When they reach land, the waves inundate everything in their path, causing floods, debris flows, electrical fires and massive human devastation. The 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia took more than 230,000 lives and was filmed by hundreds of cameras. In 2011, a tsunami hit the Japanese coast, accounting for over 20,000 deaths and billions of dollars in damages including nuclear fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Communities along the Pacific Coast of North America have begun to take tsunami threats more seriously, and started to think about how to prepare for them and reduce their tolls. But none as much as Westport, which sits on a thin spit of sandy soil jutting out into the Pacific a mere 20 feet above sea level. The town is also only 50 miles from a major underwater fault line known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which has ruptured in the past.
“We all began discussing it much more often,” says Hollie, a mother of four who works in Westport but lives in nearby Tokeland. “We started looking into individual and family plans, as well as community solutions that could help save lives in the event of a major earthquake.”
One community leader who helped turn concern into action is Paula Akerlund, superintendent of Westport’s Ocosta School District. There had been plans to rebuild Ocosta Elementary School, which sits on a campus that includes the South Coast region’s middle and high schools. Akerlund and other leaders saw an opportunity to capitalize on that project to build a structure that was both highly functional and unique.
“The design of the new school includes four reinforced vertical evacuation towers that can withstand a magnitude nine or greater earthquake and tsunami,” she explains. “It’s the first vertical tsunami evacuation structure in the whole of North America.”
The design looks like a square castle or fortress, with four 30-foot tall stair towers anchored 50 feet down into the bedrock that lead up to a large open floor surrounded by six-foot tall walls. Experts estimate its walls are about 14 feet higher than the maximum height a tsunami could reach.
Claims Akerlund, “It only cost $2 million more than the original design for the school, it can house more than 1,000 community members and it’s built to the potential conditions as much as we know them. It’s really a community success story.”
Tucker agrees: “Before the new school was planned I remember thinking, ‘What would I do?’ It really does bring me comfort to know that structure is there.”
Local experts and innovators think it’s an important first step, but believe communities like Westport need a full range of solutions to avoid the dangers local governments faced in Japan.
“Japan is arguably the most tsunami-prepared nation in the world,” says Dr. Eddie Bernard, renowned NOAA tsunami expert and current Vice President of the Mukilteo-based Survival Capsule, LLC. “But they still lost 20,000 people. One thing I’ve learned after 45 years of studying these things is that we underestimate the risk.”
Bernard says the Japanese experts depended too much on vertical evacuation structures that were designed on flawed theoretical models. “They thought a magnitude nine quake couldn’t happen, but we all know now that it did,” he says. “And they assumed everyone would evacuate and make it to those shelters. But of course many of them didn’t. And many who did still perished. So what the Japanese have been looking into now are solutions that bring redundancy.”
He and partner Julian Sharpe, an aeronautical engineer and president and CEO of Survival Capsule, have developed a self-contained escape pod that can withstand the impact of even the largest tsunami, as well as the extreme hot and cold temperatures, debris impacts and chemical threats that can accompany it. The spherical structure is based on aircraft design, with a sturdy aluminum frame surrounded by a reinforced aluminum skin, making the capsule strong and protective but also lightweight.
The capsule has passed rigorous impact and temperature tests with flying colors. A capsule can be kept in someone’s garage or on their lawn, stocked with supplies including water and oxygen.
“If and when the earthquake happens,” explains Sharpe, “you and your family get your essentials and immediately go into the capsule, close the door and wait for the wave to come. You then stay 100 percent self-sufficient in the capsule throughout the impact and aftermath of the tsunami until you can get to safe ground, or be rescued by helicopter.”
The capsules come in two, four, six and 10-person sizes. Though designed for families and individuals, they are also being looked at in Japan for schools, community centers and even as backup escape options at tsunami shelters and evacuation towers. The company is now seeking investors and plans to make the capsules more widely available in vulnerable areas of the U.S., like Westport.
“There’s no reason to think that a 2011-type tsunami couldn’t happen here,” says Dr. Bernard. “We have all of the geological ingredients for it to happen, so I think the residents and planners of the Northwest need to do everything they can to make multiple solutions available so people can customize their own solutions.”
But that may require government subsidies in many of the Northwest’s coastal regions, something Survival Capsule is hoping to foster.
“We’re a fairly economically-challenged area,” says Hollie Tucker. “People are really more concentrated on getting by. We don’t have extra money to buy pods and build our own towers. We have our plan A, which is to get to the school and our plan B which is to get to higher ground either by truck or by ATV. Other than that we try not to think about it too much. Especially now that we’ve brought safety to the forefront with the new school.”
“I hope we can inspire other communities to build structures like these,” says Superintendent Akerlund, referring to the towers. “And to hopefully expand upon what we’re doing. Hopefully they’ll be able to see that a small community without a lot of resources was able to do this and be inspired to find solutions that fit their communities.”