North Beach District pushes for tsunami tower at elementary school

Still distinct from agreement with city, district’s tower could serve school and some public

The North Beach School District wants to explore the possibility of building a tsunami tower with state funding on the grounds of Ocean Shores Elementary School.

The district left open the possibility that the tower would be large enough, in the event of a tsunami, to host a portion of the public outside of school students and staff, which would involve combining school construction funds with other sources, but has not specifically rekindled a proposed agreement with the city of Ocean Shores — one they rejected earlier this year — to use school construction funds on the city’s tower nearby.

At a Tuesday meeting, the board of directors unanimously approved two application letters requesting funding from the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for projects intended to protect elementary school students in the event of a tsunami. The district is also studying the possibility of relocating Pacific Beach Elementary from the tsunami inundation zone.

Funding would come from OSPI’s Seismic Safety Grant Program, which covers the costs of retrofitting or relocating schools prone to dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis.

Since it created the program in 2022, the state Legislature has funneled $140 million to the program. So far, planning grants have been awarded to four school districts on the coast and amount to $400,000.

A phase 1 planning grant from OSPI would provide money for geological assessments of the soils on elementary school grounds, testing to see which areas would be best for a tower, or a vertical evacuation facility. Phases 2 and 3 are planning and construction phases. Seismic safety grants are required to pay for at least two-thirds of costs for any given project.

According to a grant request letter approved by the board, the district wants to find out if the tower could be used “as a dual-purpose facility that can be regularly utilized by the district for educational and/or co-curricular purposes.”

Funds from the School Seismic Safety Program can only provide for a structure with a large enough capacity to serve students and staff. But the district also wants to study the feasibility of a tower with extra capacity, large enough to shelter some portion of the area’s population, “should it become practical” for the district to combine OSPI money with funding from “other federal, tribal, state and local government sources” to cover the extra cost.

In January, the school board voted 3-1 to reject an agreement that would’ve sent $8 million from OSPI’s seismic safety program to the city, the final funding piece needed to construct an 800-person tsunami tower a third of a mile from the elementary school. The city’s project has been in the works since before 2018, when it won a national $3.6 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city has allocated $4.8 million to a tsunami tower, including about $700,000 of its own money.

That was the original cost estimate for the tower, but after the pandemic halted all construction, inflation more than doubled the projection. Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin looked to OSPI’s Seismic Safety Program to fill the gap.

School board President Jeff Albertson, who voted against the passthrough agreement in January, said on Thursday he would be open to partnering with the city to build a tower, as long as the tower was constructed on school grounds. He and other board members have argued that 1,800 feet would be too far for elementary students to walk or run following several minutes of violent shaking, as would be the case in a 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which would also trigger a large tsunami and inundate the Ocean Shores peninsula.

“They are going to be under full panic if something were to happen,” said board member Robert Doering, who was not a board member during the January vote. “We want them to just climb up those stairs and be done with it.”

Doering emphasized the “dual-purpose” aspect of a potential vertical evacuation structure, saying he wanted to see the facility provide some kind of public benefit in the meantime before a disaster.

Jessica Iliff was the lone board member to vote in favor of the passthrough partnership with the city in January. In April, when the board voted to direct staff to prepare a planning grant request for a tower at the elementary school, she was the lone board member to oppose it. But on Tuesday she, along with the rest of the board, supported the planning grant request to OSPI. As of Thursday afternoon, Iliff could not be reached for comment.

Although the board remained open, with their recent letter, to combining OSPI funds with other sources, that prospect remains different from the proposed passthrough agreement in one key way.

Tim Cook is a state hazard mitigation officer with the Washington Emergency Management Department, which administers FEMA grants to agencies in the state, including the grant secured by the city of Ocean Shores. Because the city developed a site assessment and design before it applied for the grant, the $3.6 million award can only be used for the scope of work detailed in the city’s application. Cook said the city could choose to amend the site location as long as the tower maintained its original design.

Following the January vote, OSPI offered to pay for a new site assessment at a site 900 feet closer to the school.

In theory, Cook said, the site could even be moved to land owned by the school district. But the FEMA grant is not applicable to other projects, even if they, too, are tsunami towers.

With the funding avenue the school district is currently pursuing through OSPI, it would have to procure an entirely new set of designs and scope of work. The district could contribute grant money to help build the city’s tower, but the city can’t give grant money to help build the district’s tower.

Cook said new FEMA grants for hazard mitigation generally become available on a yearly basis.

“The devil is in the details in what can be mixed and matched,” Cook said. “But the general trend is clear: There is federal and state funding available and ready to support the town to build these towers. It’s just a matter of getting the applications in and sticking to the plan.”

Martin said the city’s tsunami tower project has been motionless for the last few months, waiting for action from the school district on its own potential facility. He anticipated a meeting with the district’s new Superintendent Jim Shank to talk about next steps.

Since the district voted down the passthrough in January, Martin has sought other sources to fill the city’s funding gap, but that’s been difficult, with legislators and agencies pointing to the massive amounts of money already flowing to tsunami and seismic projects through OSPI.

The two projects could coexist, in theory, but, because of their proximity, OSPI won’t award seismic safety grants for both a tower at the elementary school and the city’s proposed location, according to Randy Newman, director of school facilities for OSPI. In addition, the city’s tower was initially designed to include the population of the elementary school — about 200 students and 39 staff.

If a tower on elementary school grounds protected the school, and potentially some of the surrounding population, the city may have to rework its own design, said Sarah Bisson, grant writer for the city of Ocean Shores.

One possible option, according to Bisson, and which was floated at the city’s Tsunami Roadshow presentation last month, would be to reduce the size of the city tower to the extent it would fit within the current allocated budget.

According to a tsunami risk assessment from the University of Washington, and a 2010 assessment called Project Safe Haven, the Ocean Shores peninsula ultimately needs 23 vertical evacuation structures to ensure the safety of 95-99% of its residents.

Modeling from the Washington Department of Natural Resources predicts a 10-15% chance of a 9.0 magnitude Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in the next 50 years, after which a major tsunami would hit Washington’s coast in 10-20 minutes.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or