New $4.2 million tsunami tower in Tokeland can hold 400 people

It’s not if a natural disastrous wave will hit Washington state’s coast — it’s when.

When, and getting to safety as quick as possible, were the main messages that numerous officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state of Washington, Pacific County, Shoalwater Bay Indian tribal members, and others shared Friday, Aug. 5, in Tokeland at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Shoalwater Bay Vertical Evacuation Tower, nicknamed the “Auntie Lee” Tsunami Tower.

The tsunami tower, named for now-retired Lee Shipman — the Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s first emergency management director, is the first ever tsunami tower built by a tribal nation, and first ever FEMA-funded tower. The tower cost approximately $4.2 million to build, according to Ken Ufkin, director of emergency management for the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. FEMA provided about $3 million, and the tribe itself paid $1.2 million.

The tower should accommodate all of the 100 tribal members who live on the tribal lands near Tokeland, as well as the 200 residents of Tokeland, plus any visitors in the area.

The tower’s construction started May 17, 2021, according to a program about the tower. The idea for something better than “high ground” nearby started nearly 20 years ago, according to a brief about the tower. Then, the Tohouku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, in Japan, served as a “reminder” for why the tribe needed something better. Apparently, a wave as high as 10 feet moving fast could make landfall in the Shoalwater Bay and Tokeland area within 10-22 minutes, in case an 8 to 9 magnitude earthquake struck.

Pacific County Sheriff Robin Souvenir said people who live in the area should feel safer knowing the tower is built.

“Before, they didn’t really have anywhere to go in that 15 minute window (in case) a tsunami occurred,” Souvenir said.

The tower itself is about 50 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and is supported by piers that anchor the tower approximately 51 feet below grade. The double-decked tower — one at 40 feet, and the other at 50 feet can hold 400 people. That doesn’t count the multiple stairways that allow for ingress and egress to and from the tower. There are about 90 steps up to the top, where one can see Willapa Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Ufkin said the tower still needs little miscellaneous items, such as non-skid on the stairs, and a few electrical components for lighting.

Charlene Nelson, chairwoman for Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, said she’s been through a tsunami in Alaska.

“We were warned it was coming, and to get in deep water with your boat,” Nelson said. “That’s the only thing you can do. And so it’s not exactly the same as this, but it’s fast. And I know they happen.”

Nelson said people need to be prepared, and it’s why the tower was built.

“We’re being prepared and we want other people to realize if they live on the coast that you need to be ready,” Nelson said. “It’s not just for a few people, but it’s for everybody. We’re all the same, everybody. (We need) a safe place.”

While Nelson said she didn’t go through the type of tsunami that the tower in Tokeland is designed to protect against, she remembers it came fast.

Later, while those who were present for the ceremony and the ribbon cutting, were enjoying the fresh salmon, pulled pork, homemade clam chowder, courtesy of Soup and Sage Catering in Cosmopolis, Nelson thought more about what people need to know.

Nelson urges people to keep a bag packed with blankets, wool socks, nonperishable food — and rotate that food occasionally to make sure it’s fresh.

“And bring a deck of cards to keep the mind sharp,” Nelson said.

Nelson said families should also make sure they have a plan so they can go at a “moment’s notice.”

“You can’t waste time,” Nelson said.

Pacific County Director of Emergency Management Scott McDougall said the tower is designed to handle a tsunami generated by the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is approximately 60 miles from Washington state’s coast.

McDougall said if there were to be an earthquake like the 9.2-magnitude one that hit Alaska in 1964, which generated a 12.5-foot wave, and it were to come in conjunction with the high tide, it could do more damage.

The tsunami killed 115 people, according to the Alaska Division of Public Health.

“It could have impacts beyond that first dune crest,” McDougall said. “It could have broader impacts.”

Count Pacific County Sheriff Robin Souvenir among the rest of the group who is happy the tower will help bring safety to the members of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, and the residents of Tokeland.

“It’s kind of one of those things where it’s really beneficial to have when it’s needed,” Souvenir said.

Souvenir added how it was “great” of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe to think of the area that surrounds its tribal members who live on the lands there, and to help plan for something to keep the area around the tribe safe, as well.

Shipman talked about how after many meetings the Shoalwater Bay’s tribal council decided it was best to build the tower. The council decided to “set aside at least $1 million for this project, and to pursue a FEMA grant.”

“We had already completed an evacuation tower on Eagle Hill for the people on our reservation, or near our reservation to get to safety,” Shipman said. “We knew we wanted to put the tower here in Tokeland, so that people here would have a chance to get to safety.”

Along the long list of people who thanked Shipman for her efforts to make sure the tsunami tower was built, was Lynn Clark, secretary for the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribal Council. Clark is the tribe’s longest serving council member.

“Auntie Lee was away for a while, and then she came back with a vengeance … That’s Lee,” said Clark to the 100-plus attendees. “

Clark said Lee cares deeply for tribal members and families in the areas that surround the tribal lands.

“Lee was instrumental and relentless in getting the tsunami tower,” Clark said. “She didn’t do it alone. She had many people helping, and the tribal council basically let her go so she could accomplish her goal in getting this built. This tower will save our lives some day. I am very proud of her, and thank you all, all of you for helping her. And thank you very much Auntie Lee.”