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How the Pacific Northwest is preparing for a catastrophic tsunami

March 22, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
It’s when, not if, the Pacific Northwest is due for a major seismic disaster; scientists say there’s a 37 percent chance one could strike in the next 50 years. FEMA estimates such an earthquake and resulting tsunami could kill thousands and leave a million more homeless. But some concerned coastal communities are working to make sure they’re ready when it hits. William Brangham reports.


In the small fishing and logging community of Ocosta, Washington, residents are doing something about an invisible danger lurking just miles off their coastline — one of the most dangerous seismic faults in the world. The community agreed to raise local taxes to build North America’s first vertical tsunami evacuation shelter atop the local school’s new gymnasium. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can hold up to 2,000 people in the event of an earthquake and tsunami that follows. After the quake hits, residents will only have between 15 and 25 minutes to get there before the tsunami arrives on their shores.

But how real is the threat? The Cascadia fault sits just offshore, stretching 700 miles from Vancouver Island in Canada to northern California. Scientists have calculated it’s overdue for a rupture and the likelihood of a large quake happening in the next 50 years is 37 percent. FEMA estimates the number of people killed in a major quake and tsunami could reach 13,000 with a further 20,000 injured; 140,000 square miles would be affected.

The superintendent of schools in Ocosta, Paula Akerlund, said the 2011 tsunami in Japan guided their construction project. “One of the things that we knew from Japan is that some buildings were overtopped. So we tried to make the wall here high enough and then also I think it will serve another purpose because there will be children up here with us and they won’t really see what’s happening for awhile.”

The tsunami shelter is ready for use now with a ribbon cutting ceremony scheduled in June.

Farther up the Washington coast, the Quinault Indian Nation village of Taholah sits at the edge of the Pacific, only 6 feet above sea level. To combat the tsunami threat and rising sea levels the tribe has a five-year plan to move to higher ground. It’s a place the Quinault have lived for centuries and tribe president Fawn Sharp says, “Our membership sees the exciting opportunity of creating a new village and what that might look like. But so many of our memories are here in this village and the thought of it being under water, you know, there’s a lot of trauma to that prospect that a very sacred site could no longer exist.”

Read the full transcript below:

GWEN IFILL: It’s a question of when, not if, a major seismic disaster will strike the Pacific Northwest. Scientists put the odds of a big earthquake and tsunami occurring within the next 50 years at 37 percent.

So, what are coastal communities doing to prepare and to make sure that they are resilient in the face of an extreme event?

“NewsHour” correspondent William Brangham decided to find out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m standing on the coast of Washington. This is the very edge of the continental United States. And just a few miles out in the Pacific Ocean is considered one of the most dangerous seismic faults in all of North America.

Scientists believe if that fault were to rupture, it could devastate much of the Pacific Northwest. The fault is known as the Cascadia subduction zone, where two tectonic plates meet underneath the Pacific Ocean. This fault line stretches 700 miles along the coast.

KEN MURPHY, Regional Administrator, FEMA: Earthquakes have no season. It’s earthquake season every day.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ken Murphy is FEMA’s regional administrator. He oversees emergency operations for the Northwest region. He says if this whole fault were to rupture, not only would there be a catastrophic earthquake, but that quake would then trigger an enormous tsunami, which would crash into the Pacific Northwest minutes later.

KEN MURPHY: You roughly have about 140,000 square miles of communities and land and people up and down Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Major cities like Seattle, Vancouver and Portland could be seriously damaged. FEMA estimates that in an 8- or 9-magnitude quake, nearly 13,000 people could be killed, with another 20,000 injured. A million people would be made homeless.

And to some, these are conservative estimates.

KEN MURPHY: It’s not just FEMA, but how we as a nation are going to respond to this, because it’s really going to take everybody’s efforts.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This threat has people across the Northwest worried, no more so than in coastal Washington, towns like Westport, Ocean Shores, Ocosta. Chuck Wallace is an emergency manager for this county.

CHUCK WALLACE, Grays Harbor Emergency Management: If you’re in an inundation zone or close to the coast, if you feel an earthquake, you have to suspect that a tsunami could be following. And if there is one, if they are coming, we would have anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes along the coast to move to higher ground.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And so the town of Ocosta, with just a few thousand residents, is now building this, a large tsunami evacuation shelter here on top of its public school. It’s the first of its kind in North America.

PAULA AKERLUND, Superintendent, Ocosta School District: Well, right now we’re in the stair tower. This is after the earthquake. We’re evacuating to the rooftop for the tsunami evacuation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So there’s four stairwells like this one?


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Paula Akerlund is the school superintendent for the district, and she was instrumental in getting this shelter built. Akerlund said they started discussing this shelter four years ago. In an ominous coincidence, hours later, the massive tsunami hit Japan.

The whole world watched as waves destroyed buildings and roads and entire towns in just a matter of minutes.

PAULA AKERLUND: We learned a lot about what to do in this building from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. So, one of the things that we knew from Japan is that some buildings were overtopped.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Water coming up over the roof.

PAULA AKERLUND: Yes. And so we tried to make the walls here high enough so that that would no happen. And then, also, I think it will serve another purpose, because there will be children up here with us and they won’t really see what’s happening, I think, for awhile. I think that might be a good thing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Oh, so the walls will protect them from watching their community.

PAULA AKERLUND: Kind of protect them from watching.

Our whole focus is on the safety and welfare of the kids, and so we try to think about things like that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And the kids in Ocosta have been absorbing some of this concern too. Listen to what we happened to hear in this sixth grade class.

WOMAN: Andrew, what are you reading?

STUDENT: I’m reading “Escaping the Giant Wave.”

WOMAN: Oh, “Escaping the Giant Wave.”

Several of us sitting here have been having tsunami dreams. And we’re just taking it to mean that it’s because it’s in the news, not that it’s any kind of premonition. Yes, not going to happen, just something because we talk about it and stuff. But tell me about the title. How does the title fit in with what you’re reading so far?

STUDENT: The news truck blared out there was a tsunami coming at 5:30, and it was 5:20.

WOMAN: And was there actually a tsunami coming?


WOMAN: Yes. Goodness’ sakes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The highly reinforced structure they have built isn’t just to protect the 620 students at the school. The roof can hold nearly 2,000 people, and officials say no one would be turned away in a disaster, and the shelter will be accessible 24/7 from this point forward.

The total cost? Just over $2 million. And get this: No state or federal money was used offered to build it. Locals had to vote on a bond specifically to raise their own taxes to build this, and this isn’t a wealthy community.

PAULA AKERLUND: I had no idea whether it would pass or not.

I told one of our teachers, if the bond passes, I will be doing a happy dance, and he told me it’s going to pass by 70 percent. And it did, it did. And I was doing a little happy little dance, yes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But how likely is it that this shelter will ever be needed? Skeptics can point out that there’s no recorded history of a major quake and tsunami here, so what’s the likelihood?

Well, the answer to that can be found in one of the great seismological detective stories, and it happened here on the Copalis River, about 40 miles north of Ocosta. I went up the river with local guide Dave Agner.

Do you know how tall these cedars would’ve been back in their day?

This is what’s known as the Ghost Forest. These dead cedar trees hold a crucial clue to the very real danger facing the Pacific Northwest.

DAVE AGNER, River Guide: William, straight ahead at 12:00. You see that tree that is partially in the river and partially on the land?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For years, it was thought these trees had died over time, decades apart. But in the late 1980s, two scientists found evidence that these trees all died simultaneously, when the ground beneath them plunged downwards several feet, which is often what occurs in subduction zone earthquakes.

They found strong evidence of a major quake 300 years ago, but had it also triggered a tsunami? A few years later, a Japanese scientist proved that it had. He was looking through centuries-old records trying to understand a mysterious tsunami that hit Japan in 1700. When he saw the data from Washington’s Ghost Forest, he realized they were the exact same event.

That quake off Washington’s coast sent a tsunami that not only flooded the Pacific Northwest, but also traveled 5,000 miles across the ocean and hit Japan.

DAVE AGNER: There was evidence of a massive one in 1700, and the Japanese kept fantastic records. The shoguns required very, very good record-keeping, or you could lose your life if you promised a certain crop and it didn’t come in.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just a few miles from the Ghost Forest, another community is trying to grapple with this looming threat in an even more dramatic fashion. The Quinault Indian Nation has lived along this coast for centuries.

Fawn Sharp is their president.

FAWN SHARP, President, Quinault Indian Nation: If you look behind me, you will see where our treaty was negotiated in 1855 at the mouth of the Quinault River, where the Quinault River meets the ocean. And it’s 150 years ago. Nobody at that time ever anticipated that this entire central part of our community would ever be underwater.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This aerial rendering of their village shows how, in the event of a quake and tsunami, the entire area would be inundated with water. So, they’re going to move the whole village up the hill to this spot. But moving an entire village is not easy.

FAWN SHARP: These are major facilities. This is a brand-new courthouse, fairly new.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that’s going to have to be moved?

FAWN SHARP: And that’s going to have to be moved. Our community center, our central gathering place will have to obviously be moved.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s a lot of structures.

FAWN SHARP: Yes. Our membership sees the exciting opportunity of creating a new village and what that might look like, but so many of our memories are here in this village, and the thought of it being underwater, you know, there’s a lot of trauma to that prospect that a very sacred site could no longer exist.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Quinault hope to have the entire village moved to higher ground within the next five years.

Back in Ocosta, the tsunami shelter is just getting its finishing touches. Officials say, if a quake hit tomorrow, the shelter’s ready to hold anyone who can get here.

Emergency manager Chuck Wallace says this building, and how it got built, is a model of what a community can do.

CHUCK WALLACE: You know, you sit back and they always say, well, government did this, government did that. No, the people did this.

PAULA AKERLUND: This very small community, very self-reliant community takes care of each other. People here were willing to increase their tax dollars to build this facility for their kids and their grandchildren. So, I think that that’s a remarkable thing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They hope to have a ribbon-cutting for the shelter in June.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham along the Washington coast.