When Marlene Perez took the principal job at Pacific Beach Elementary just over four years ago, tsunamis weren’t on her mind.
Inevitably, however, part of Perez’s responsibility — given the school she runs lies just a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most seismically vulnerable schools in Washington — is keeping students safe should the ocean surge.
Perez led students Thursday, Oct. 20 in single file away from the school, up Fourth Street and across Railroad Avenue, then north on First Street, uphill towards the fire station in Pacific Beach as part of “The Great Shakeout,” a region-wide earthquake and tsunami drill.
That route would be the safety protocol for the school should a tsunami approach the shores of Pacific Beach and threaten to put the school underwater. More specifically, 29 feet underwater, according to seismic modeling, should a magnitude 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, nicknamed “the big one,” strike.
At 10:20 a.m. Tuesday, tsunami alarms blared in Pacific Beach, audible from Liz Newman’s fifth-grade classroom, where students curled under their desks to protect themselves from earthquake damage, a “shelter in place” drill.
Then, Newman led her students outside, where they met the third and fourth-grade classrooms and assembled according to the instruction of principal Perez via megaphone.
But should a 9.0 earthquake — a 10-17% likelihood in the next 50 years — actually strike, Perez said, the students would skip those first two steps they practiced Thursday.
“Our goal is teaching our kids about where they go,” Perez said in an interview. “I’ve spoken to teachers and the older kids and said, ‘You don’t have to wait for me, you go.’”
Perez said her first priority would be to clear the building during a real tsunami, sending students and staff on their way up the hill before leaving herself.
She communicated Thursday via handheld radio as the drill progressed.
One problem with the school’s evacuation route, Perez pointed out, is that students have to walk — or run, as would be more likely during a real disaster — towards the ocean to reach the fire station, not away from it.
The fire station would likely be a major point of assembly for the town during a large tsunami because it sits at the highest point in the area.
Students will have to move quickly to get there, too. Perez said emergency officials told her, should “the big one” hit, that students will have just 15 minutes to reach the fire station, which is roughly a mile away and uphill.
According to Perez’s timer, it took the group 17 minutes and 30 seconds to reach the fire station Thursday.
But that was probably due to some amount of moseying from the students as they trailed up First Street.
Stephen Rhoads, a fifth-grader, quickly snapped back into the single-file line on the roadside after his drifting walk garnered a holler from one teacher. Four years ago, as a first-grader, he participated in The Great Shakeout for the first time.
The First Street hill, he said, seemed much smaller and slighter than it did back then.
“It’s a lot easier,” Rhoads said. “My legs are like ‘whatever, this is fine.’”
Back at the school, the first and second-graders studied the route, participating in a virtual version of the drill to familiarize themselves with disaster protocol. Firefighters visited the school later that afternoon to talk about emergency preparedness.
While it’s important for the students to know the tsunami route, the ultimate solution, Perez said, would be to relocate the school altogether, because of its age and vulnerable location — It was built in 1956, before most seismic construction codes existed.
Perez and others from North Beach School District have worked over the past several years towards plans for a new elementary school. Those plans were hindered earlier this year when the district failed to pass a $110 million dollar bond that would’ve funded construction.
But for now, Perez said, the school is doing all it can to prepare for the imminent threats of the ocean.
“We’re as prepared as we can be,” she said.