Last week, a few hundred people gathered at the Ocean Shores Convention Center with tsunamis on the brain.
Attendees included officials from city government, the Washington State Emergency Management Division, North Beach School District, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and members of the public.
There, state emergency management officials said that, in the event of an imminent and immense wave, towers — or vertical evacuation structures — are the most viable refuge for people in Ocean Shores.
But right now, the only agencies with a funding path — albeit a hazy one — and the power to decide where, and if, a tower will be built, are the school district and the city.
Five months, ago, North Beach School District voted to reject an agreement between the city, OSPI and the district that would’ve passed an $8 million grant to the city for the construction of a tower near Ocean Shores Elementary School, halting momentum on a project the city has worked toward for roughly a decade.
Now, the district is exploring the possibility, among other tsunami mitigation around the district, of constructing its own tower on the grounds of Ocean Shores Elementary outside of the city’s partnership, leaving big decisions ahead for the district — and for a town that, according to state modeling, ultimately needs two-dozen structures to ensure the safety of its residents when a tsunami hits.
Covering the cost
Emergency management officials last week presented a hypothetical: the Juan de Fuca plate slips below North America, triggering a 9.0 earthquake — the big one — and sending a surge of water barreling toward the Washington coast. The ground shakes, violently, for 3-6 minutes, and the wave reaches Ocean Shores minutes later. Only 8% of the city gets to high ground.
Historically, the Cascadia Subduction Zone has produced an earthquake of this size every 240-600 years. It last slipped in 1700, and there’s a 15-25% chance it will do so in the next 50 years, according to state modeling.
That scenario is part of the reason North Beach School Board President Jeff Albertson voted against the agreement with the city, his priority being protection of students.
“It’s an elementary school, we’ve got a lot of young children there. Albertson said. “Personally, I have a lot more confidence in their ability to do that if the tower is on the elementary school grounds, rather than being a quarter mile or four tenths of a mile away.”
The city’s original proposed tower location was 1,800 feet north of the elementary school, about a third of a mile away.
It’s why Albertson took the first step towards constructing a tower on the grounds of Ocean Shores Elementary, bringing a resolution to the board to explore that prospect. The board approved, directing district staff to prepare an application to conduct a feasibility study for the project through the state’s School Seismic Safety Grant Program. The application will return to the board in June, and if approved, will then be submitted to OSPI.
As it stands now, OSPI’s seismic safety program is one of the largest pots of state money, if not the largest, dedicated to earthquake and tsunami preparedness. The Legislature created the program in 2022 by setting up a School Seismic Safety Committee and devoting a $100 million starting balance, which was recently padded by $40 million for the current biennium. OSPI has requested $100 million for the program every two years until 2032, according to Randy Newman, OSPI’s director of school facilities.
Grants come in multiple phases and assist with funding projects from assessments through construction. It’s a requirement of the program that seismic safety grants account for at least two-thirds of every project cost.
The district in 2022 received a $92,000 planning grant from the program for seismic assessments — and a potential tsunami structure — at North Beach Junior/Senior High School. At the April meeting, the board also voted to examine the possibility of using seismic safety funds to pay for a relocation of aging Pacific Beach Elementary, one of the most seismically vulnerable schools in the state. Set to return to the school board in July, the application will identify possible sites for a new elementary school with the help of geologic assessments and the district’s newly appointed real estate appraiser.
For the Pacific Beach project, Albertson said, “our goal would be to have over 90% of the total project costs covered through the OSPI programs, and then that would leave the remainder of the project costs for our district to cover, which would likely happen through a bond measure.”
North Beach School District voters last year rejected a $110 bond measure last year to pay for seismic retrofits around the district, including Pacific Beach Elementary relocation.
“The existence of the OSPI seismic safety grant program is kind of a godsend for districts like ours that can struggle to fund capital projects,” Albertson said. “We have these huge seismic safety and tsunami safety needs across all three of our buildings. We’re really trying to move fast while this program exists and is funded to take advantage of the resources that are available.”
Albertson suggested — a rough estimate — a three to five year timeline for the district’s seismic projects.
“We’re working on a geologic time scale here,” Albertson said.
OSPI’s seismic safety program provides a clear funding path for tsunami mitigation for North Beach, but there’s a catch — grants can only provide enough money to accommodate schools. If the district were to construct a tower at Ocean Shores Elementary, for example, its size would be determined based on FEMA’s square-foot-per occupant recommendations multiplied by the number of students and staff at the school, and no additional occupants, according to Newman of OSPI.
For Albertson, that makes sense, and it’s another reason why he voted against an agreement to use OSPI funds for a tower on city land — “out of a more philosophical belief, that school construction funds should be used to construct school facilities.”
There lies the crux of the predicament for Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin.
Stuck in limbo
Years before Martin took office, the city began working on a tsunami tower project. They developed a site, produced a design, submitted a grant application to FEMA, and, in 2018 won the money — $3.6 million — in a national competition. The city chipped in $700,000, the Department of Commerce $500,000, creating a total project budget of $4.8 million.
Then the pandemic halted all public projects while rising construction costs more than doubled price estimates. Since then, the state emergency management division, acting as a liaison between the city and FEMA, has secured two grant extensions, setting a deadline of April 2024.
In January, Martin approached the school district with an agreement between the city, OSPI and the district to fill the funding gap. If passed, the district would have applied for a phase four construction grant, given the city had already completed assessment, planning and design.
Martin said wasn’t expecting the board to take a vote on the matter at a January board meeting — one that saw high public turnout and many speaking in opposition to the agreement — but instead to merely inform the board. Martin said he would’ve voted the same way as the board had he not had all the information.
“We didn’t approve it because it was not enough planning for us,” said board member Steve Rockey, who voted against the measure alongside Albertson and Kristin Farris. “We wanted to make sure it would not jeopardize the school district in any way, shape or form from getting other grants to do (seismic retrofits) and tsunami towers on school property.”
Martin has spent the months since the school board’s pass-through rejection seeking other funding sources to fill the gap between the money the city has now and what’s needed to construct the tower. He said he reached out to federal representatives for potential funding through a congressional infrastructure bill, although that would likely be a “long reach.”
Exploring other state-level funding sources has been difficult, Martin said, with legislators and agencies pointing to the massive amounts of money already flowing to tsunami and seismic projects through OSPI.
Rockey said that after the January vote he and Farris met with the city and OSPI. The city suggested an alternative site for a tower 900 feet closer to the school — or half as far — with OSPI offering to pay for site reassessment.
According to Newman, the $8 million is still available as part of the Legislature’s initial $100 million allocation in 2022.
The pass-through issue has not returned to the board for a vote. That would have to happen at the request of a board member who originally opposed the agreement. Rockey told The Daily World he would be willing to bring the agreement as long as he got his “ducks in a row” after more talks with the city.
Albertson said he has not considered bringing back the pass-through agreement. Farris could not be reached for comment. Since the January vote, the board added Robert Doering as its fifth member. Jessica Iliff was the lone board member to vote in favor of the pass through in January, and the lone board member to vote against pursuing a tower at Ocean Shores Elementary.
If the school district did decide to move forward with the pass-through agreement, it would not affect future seismic safety funding for other projects elsewhere in the district. However, according to Newman of OSPI, if the city built a tower near the school using OSPI funds, OSPI would consider the school “mitigated,” and the district would no longer be eligible for seismic safety funds for a tsunami structure on the grounds of Ocean Shores Elementary.
Martin said Thursday he’s currently waiting to hear more about the school board’s plan for projects, and if the board decides to build a tsunami tower at Ocean Shores Elementary he “would be very much supportive of them doing that.”
A tower at the elementary school could shake up plans for the city. According to Ocean Shores grant writer Sarah Bisson, the city’s original tower design was for 800 people, which included the elementary school’s population. With a tower on school grounds, those students would be taken care of, and would no longer factor into the city’s cost-benefit analysis — the number of people served per dollar — a ratio the city has to maintain as a grant requirement.
That could also present an opportunity. According to Bisson, one option is to reduce the size of the tower at the original location, which would also reduce its cost — possibly to within the city’s current $4.8 million budget.
If the city decided to move the tower’s location to another site, it would have to forfeit its grant and potentially reapply.
Martin said another option, should the district build its own tower, would be to start looking at a second type of multi-function tsunami building — parking garages, building roofs, and other structures that have been employed elsewhere.
Only part of the solution
At last week’s tsunami roadshow, emergency management officials presented another hypothetical: a network of 23 vertical evacuation structures dot the Ocean Shores peninsula, and 95-99% of people reach high ground within 25 minutes of a Cascadia rupture.
Officials also presented a map of proposed structure locations — the most efficient layout to serve the greatest number of people for the least cost. The map is the result of a vertical evacuation needs assessment conducted by the University of Washington and built on information from Project Safe Haven, a 2010 tsunami risk assessment.
That assessment suggests only one tower in the vicinity of Ocean Shores Elementary.
“I’m all about trying to find solutions,” Martin said “I totally understand that the tsunami tower is not the only solution. But it is part of the solution, and it is the only thing that could be done in the near future to start addressing a tsunami.”
“I can do all the prep in the world, but if I don’t have a place I can possibly send people when we have a tsunami, that breaks down the entire emergency preparedness.”