More tsunami evacuation towers planned for Washington coastline

WESTPORT, Wash. -- Any point along Washington’s 157 miles of coastline is vulnerable to a tsunami. In general, the plan for the people along the coast is to get to higher ground. But what if higher ground is too far? In Westport, they have an answer, and it's built on top of an elementary school.

From the outside, some may think that the kids at Ocosta Elementary School have a really big gym. You wouldn't be wrong, but if you take a closer look, it is a gym with a purpose.

“This will be the safest place if you’re here in Westport or in the area along the coast,” said Steve Schmeling with the Ocosta School District.

A safe haven from incoming tsunami waves that’s built strong.

“This is the first vertical evacuation safe haven in North America. And this is to protect our community and our kids,” said Schmeling. “Each one of these stair towers has 50,000 pounds of rebar in it, with 14-inch concrete walls.”

There are 109 pilings under the structure.

“So if there’s shoring, that it’ll stay standing. Basically it’s a building on stilts,” Schmeling.

The vertical evacuation structure was completed in 2016 to coincide with the rebuilt Ocosta Elementary school at a cost of $2 million.

“We needed an upgrade for our elementary building, and so this is two birds with one stone and the community supported it,” said Schmeling.

It is the highest ground for miles. And if a tsunami were to hit, it could hold 2,000 people

“These vertical evacuation structures are really the important place for people to head to high ground in the event that we have a tsunami,” said Hannah Cleverly, Deputy Director of Emergency Management for Grays Harbor County.

There are four towers that people can enter in from. Each of the towers has supplies.

“We have tarps, ropes, granola bars, toilet paper, emergency supplies, we have an AED also,” said Schmeling.

Along with water, flashlights and blankets, enough to hold people for up to four days until the water subsides or until people are rescued.

There are also redundancy systems in place just in case the power goes out.

“You would break the glass, pull the lever and that would automatically open up the doors,” said Schmeling.

But even before disaster strikes, emergency managers say be prepared, and be prepared now.

“We recommend that people have two weeks ready of materials that they can survive in the event of a tsunami or any kind of hazard,” said Cleverly.

This idea of a vertical evacuation tower has caught on with other cities in the region too. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe is building one near Tokeland. That’s expected to be completed by October 2020. Also, the cities of Ocean Shores and Aberdeen are looking to building them as well.