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Tsunami Shelters Save Lives

 …by Roger Urbaniak

Roger Stone is Northwest Prime Time’s long-time writer of The Great Outdoors column

Scientists have been predicting that a significant tsunami wave will strike the Washington coast. Research shows that the frequency of previous tsunamis means that Washington is overdue for another one, with a 10-15% chance that it will occur sometime during the next 50 years – or sooner.

When a strong earthquake occurs along the Pacific plate located off our coast, the resulting tsunami wave is expected to reach cities like Westport or Ocean Shores in roughly 20 to 30 minutes. An earthquake of 9.0 would also be expected to destroy local roads, forcing those near the water to scramble on foot to reach shelter above the height of the wave—or be caught up in the deadly debris-filled tsunami wave. Science cannot predict exactly when this event will occur.


Construction of tsunami shelters becomes a choice of between building a few expensive shelters with a good chance of providing shelter during a worst-case tsunami wave, or building several more affordable, practical shelters that have a high probability of providing shelter during most events that might occur— or building nothing.


On foot, an average person might travel up to two miles during their 20-to-30-minute warning time. Based on this information, Westport would need eight well located shelters (roughly two miles apart), Ocean Shores would need another 12 shelters and Long Beach would require 27 well located shelters. Building even a few structures capable of withstanding 20- or 30-foot tsunami waves in these areas would likely save lives. Because of the distance to higher ground, some studies have predicted that the Westport area might see 80-90% mortality from a 30- foot tsunami wave.


To date, only two shelters have been built in Washington, one at Westport and one at Tokeland, leaving lives at risk.


Four years ago, I began forming a startup non-profit company to address the tsunami shelter issue. After much study, including FEMA predictions at that time and various designs implemented in Japan, we decided to design a multipurpose building that could generate revenue, plus act as shelter in a tsunami event. We met with mayors, chamber of commerce committees, emergency management personnel, architects and state geologists. We joined a tsunami shelter study committee, and had preliminary plans drawn by an engineer. Our idea is that income from renting out useable space in the shelter would help make the structure more affordable. Our website, www.solidhighground.com, showcases our building design.


Unexpected setbacks to our efforts surprised us. Our initial design targeted withstanding 30-foot tsunami waves, which was a FEMA standard at the time, based on results of a worst case 1000-year storm. Then new building requirements changed to require withstanding a worst-case 2500-year storm with possible 60-foot waves. Some studies show that this wave could even exceed 100 feet in some locations.
We tentatively offered communities free structures valued at roughly $1.5 million if they donated land, utilities and the funding needed to meet their local requirements to finish our versatile shell. Communities would be able to keep the revenue generated. Most declined because they were afraid of liability if structures were not certified as meeting the new FEMA requirements, even though the structures would likely save lives during a major Cascadia event. Good Samaritan laws could be written to address this problem.

The best time to build a tsunami shelter is before a tsunami occurs. Planning, permits and construction can take a few years. Scientific predictions urge us to start this process soon if we are to have some shelters ready in time.

Do your own research, or feel free to visit my website, www.solidhighground.com and review our proposed solutions to the tsunami issue. Shelters capable of withstanding a tsunami wave will not be built without our public support. With public interest in saving lives by building tsunami shelters, perhaps our government will act. 

Your thoughts? I can be reached at roger@solidhighground.com.