British Columbia

Washington tsunami shelter offers protection for students, residents

Construction of the first publicly-funded tsunami shelter in North America is underway in Westport, Washington.

First-ever publicly-funded tsunami shelter in North America being built in West Coast town

Ocosta Elementary School is currently under construction. When finished, it will be home to North America's first publicly-funded tsunami shelter, which can protect half the town's population. (Ocosta Elementary Student Council/Facebook)

Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides, Westport, Wash., would not be a great place to be if a tsunami was barreling towards the West Coast.

If a major earthquake struck the Juan de Fuca fault line, the first waves would hit the town within 20 minutes.

But things are hopefully going to get a lot safer. Construction of the first publicly-funded tsunami shelter in North America is underway just south of the town at Ocosta Elementary School.

"Unfortunately, there is no high ground here," said Ocosta principal Heather Sweet. "If a major earthquake and a tsunami came, we would be covered in water."

In fact, the nearest high ground would be almost impossible to reach in the event of a tsunami, Sweet said. It would require either driving right along the coastline to a hilly region to the south, or cross three bridges (which may be knocked down) to nearby Aberdeen.

For that reason, local officials are building the shelter, which can fit 1,000 people — half the town's population — in the school itself. The project comes at a cost of about $13 million.

Money stopped similar projects

The shelter is being built around the school's new gym. It consists of four massive stair towers built out of reinforced concrete that together provide strength and height to keep occupants safe from a tsunami's impact, and hopefully above the wave itself.

Sweet says the shelter's designers took the experiences of the 2011 Japanese earthquake as their guide for what would be necessary to keep students and residents safe.

"We were very fortunate that our community loves us so much to believe in this project," Sweet said.

Several other communities in Washington and Oregon have considered building similar structures to protect citizens, but ballot initiatives to increase taxes to pay for them have all failed.

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