Westport recently reached a major milestone in the effort to provide sanctuary from an impending tsunami when city officials received notice of a $16.7 million federal grant award to build a vertical tsunami evacuation tower in the marina district.
Westport City Administrator Kevin Goodrich said the city learned of the grant award at a meeting with the Washington State Emergency Management Division last week, about three years after the state agency helped the city submit a project proposal for funding through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program and nearly seven years after forming a committee toward that goal
Goodrich said he expects to receive official notice of the award from FEMA “soon,” and after approval from the city council, completion of final designs, and securing any additional funding needed for increased costs. Construction will continue at least into 2026, he said.
Out of the $16.7 million included in FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant, the federal government will reimburse the city for $15.2 million, and the city will supply the other $1.5 million in matching funds.
That match could come from a combination of city taxes and, potentially, contributions from the state, Goodrich said.
Project estimates from November 2020 pin total costs at $15.2 million, including $11 million in construction costs and $4 million in other expenses.
Slated for a one-acre city-owned parcel a few blocks from the marina, the tower will stand at 43 feet high, featuring two stacked platforms totaling 5,000 square feet — enough room to pack in 2,000 people if disaster strikes. Steel pillars anchored in a concrete foundation will support the platforms, with concrete stairs and ramps leading evacuees to high ground.
The city still needs to assess how inflation might have changed construction costs since 2020. But the new funding primes Westport to build the third tsunami evacuation structure on the South Beach, a coastal community quickly becoming one of the most tsunami-prone on the continent.
Experts predict a 10-17% chance of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake occurring in the next 50 years. That “megathrust” fault, capable of producing a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, last ruptured 323 years ago and has slipped at least seven times in the last few millennia, once every 400-600 years on average. Studies have shown that interval can vary between 100 years and 1,300 years, however.
The tectonic lurch would send a tsunami wave inland, giving people on the coast 15-30 minutes to find high ground.
In response to building science about tsunami threats and Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people, the Washington State Emergency Management Division launched Project Safe Haven, which identified sites for coastal communities to build high ground with vertical evacuation towers, berms and other structures to escape tsunami waves.
The first tsunami structure resulting from that project — the first of its kind in North America — was the 53-foot-tall concrete and steel platform infused into Ocosta Elementary school in 2016, designed to hold more than 1,000 people and withstand a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
The planning work for that project in years prior involved a slew of technical engineers, emergency management officials, architects and others who came to Westport to advise on the new tsunami-proof elementary school. Paula Akerlund, the Ocosta superintendent at the time, became acquainted with many of them as she pushed for tsunami resilience at her school.
That was before FEMA or the state Legislature had turned their attention to tsunami and geologic hazard mitigation projects as they have in recent years. After Ocosta applied for FEMA funding and did not win an award, the community passed a taxpayer bond to fund the project.
“What our effort did was it kind of cracked the door open for subsequent grant applications,” Akerlund said.
Tim Cook, a hazard mitigation officer with the state emergency management department, said FEMA has awarded two other grants for vertical evacuation structures in Washington since then. With that funding, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe built a 400-person tower in Tokeland last year, and the city of Ocean Shores is still searching for other funding to supplement its grant before it can start construction.
With one tsunami structure already under her belt and relationships with the key players to build another, Akerlund joined a newly formed committee with its sights set on another goal: “Become the first community, anywhere that we know of, to protect all of our residents and our visitors,” said Harry Carthum, a Westport business owner and member of the chamber of commerce who chaired the committee at its outset.
Akerlund and Carthum were joined by representatives from the Port of Grays Harbor, Washington State Parks and the Westport Maritime Museum, and emergency management and city officials. A year later, the city took over organizing the committee.
“That was really a good thing because the city had staff, specifically they had a supportive mayor and council, and Kevin (Goodrich),” Carthum said.
In 2018 the committee secured a planning grant from FEMA to draft tower design renderings and prepare a grant application. Goodrich said the structure’s design and location essentially hinged on a pair of principles: “build the largest structure we can build in a location that’s going to serve the most people we can serve.”
At its location on the north end of the peninsula, on the corner of Harbor and Harms streets, the tower will lie more than a mile from city hall, but the tower will lie in Westport’s most populous area, accessible to the neighborhoods close by, marina district businesses, seafood processing plants, the Coast Guard and tourists.
“On any given summer weekend we could have 4,000 people in the marina district,” Goodrich said.
Saving the highest number of people possible is a pillar of the state’s Project Safe Haven. Another goal, one that Goodrich emphasized, is to make tsunami structures usable during times other than cataclysmic events.
As it worked on concepts for the tower, the Westport tsunami committee partnered with landscape architecture students from the University of Washington who completed a capstone project on how the tower could meld with the open space around it. Ideas included a maritime park, a music and festival venue and other industrial buildings. Goodrich said he hopes the city can keep the tower open and double its use as an observation platform.
FEMA will only pay for the life-saving portion of the tower, Goodrich said.
“We don’t want to just build a tower and have nothing around it,” Goodrich said. “We want to make it engaging, so people get used to it and it becomes part of our everyday life, so if people do have to use it for evacuation people know where it is.”
With funding for the city’s first tsunami structure secure, the tsunami committee has already begun discussions about how to add a few more in order to reach its goal of safety for all residents.
The state emergency management department in 2021 produced an assessment outlining potential spatial configurations for vertical evacuation structures, and found that three towers distributed throughout the town would be reachable by foot to 95% of the population within 15 minutes of a massive earthquake striking. The number of structures could vary depending on capacity and configuration, but members of the tsunami committee envision a series of smaller towers sprinkled into residential areas.
Besides one member who passed away, the people who make up the city’s tsunami committee are the same as they were when it formed seven years ago, Carthum said.
“It takes a group of people who are willing to stay with it,” he said.