Ocean Shores moves forward with FEMA application for tsunami-safe structure

Ocean Shores plans to apply for federal funding by Nov. 30 — with the backing of the state — to build the city’s first vertical-evacuation structure designed to save lives in the event of event of a coastal tsunami.

After two presentations by state emergency management officials Nov. 13, Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler confirmed the city is putting together an application for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to build such a tsunami-safe tower on property the city owns at its Public Works yard near Ocean Shores Elementary School.

The state plans to be an enthusiastic partner in helping to get the application approved, according to Maximilian Dixon, earthquake program manager for the state Emergency Management Division (EMD).

“This is a great year to push for vertical-evacuation structures,” Dixon said, noting FEMA has more money available than in previous years for projects designed to lessen the impact of potential natural disasters.

Dixon and Stacey McClain, EMD mitigation and recovery section manager, spoke to the City Council and in an hour-long public meeting in support of the city’s efforts to build one of 20 so-called safe-haven structures identified in 2011 as part of a larger examination of tsunami preparedness in Grays Harbor and on the Washington Coast.

Since then, EMD has developed a new vertical-evacuation structure manual to help guide municipalities through the process of planning, funding, design, construction and usage.

“You have to assess your tsunami risks and your evacuation options,” Dixon explained. “Every community is going to be different.”

One of the key elements, Dixon said, is building community support and having an open process for public involvement. For Ocean Shores, it marked the third time in the past year that Dixon has made a similar presentation before crowds as large as 300 people.

McClain said Ocean Shores already is prepard to make an application because it has an approved and updated hazard-mitigation plan.

For the city, it essentially is at phase 4 of the process in identifying a site for the first such structure. Dixon showed a potential tsunami wave inundation model with an initial height of 60 feet.

“As you go inland, its gets lighter, which means the wave aren’t going to be as high, but you can see it inundates the entire Ocean Shores peninsula,” he said.

With the 20 structures originally called for in the Safe-Haven report, Dixon said an estimated 9,200 people could be “covered and saved.”

Paving the way

Ocean Shores would be the third community on the coast to build a tsunami-safe structure if the proposed project receives funding. The first was atop the Ocosta Elementary School gymnasium in Westport, designed to provide safety for 1,000 people in the event of an earthquake or tsunami, making it the first vertical-evacuation shelter in North America. The Ocosta project was paid for by the community itself though a school bond, Dixon noted, but its completion also opened the door for FEMA approval of similar projects in the future to mitigate the potential disaster from such a major geologic catastrophe.

“They paved the way to show that it is an eligible activity,” Dixon said.

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe then became the first FEMA grant recipient, with an award of $2.2 million for a vertical shelter that can hold up to 400 people, able to accommodate the neighboring community of Tokeland.

“They are building with the capacity for the local community as well,” Dixon said.

Also, Pacific County Fire District is working with the state to put together a FEMA application.

The Ocean Shores application is for a FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant, which is awarded annually and is nationally competitive. FEMA would award 75 percent of the cost, with a required 25 percent local match.

“What is wonderful about this year, which is why we are really, really pushing for this opportunity, is you’ve got $235 million that’s available nationally, significantly greater than any year before,” Dixon said.

Working with the Shoalwater Bay project has proved that Ocean Shores’ proposal could go forward, he added.

During the presentation, Ocean Shores Elementary School Principal Rhonda Ham noted the school already has a policy of opening its doors for the public in the event of tsunami, with a third floor that could provide safety above the inundation zone, depending on the severity.

“We also know that our building is not equipped for a tsunami at this time,” Ham added. “We have some things we can do, open up all the doors and windows downstairs, pray and hope that everything is good to go and our students are safe. But we’ll pack the place as much as we can to keep as many of the community members safe also.”

Council questions

Council member Susan Conniry asked how many of the originally targeted 20 sites the city already owns, and Dingler said there were several.

“We have narrowed down to the school site and it would be at Public Works,” Dingler said. “We have folks working on this and we have to get an application in by this month. There is a lot of work to be done.”

The city in 2017 had an engineering consulting firm assess the possibility of adding a tsunami evacuation capability to the collection system building, but the cost was found to be too high.

Council member Jon Martin asked when the city would be obligated to come up with its 25 percent share of matching money if approved by FEMA.

“You could pay it toward the end of it,” McClain said. “There’s a certain amount they will set aside and hold in abeyance, and then when (the project) is all over and being liquidated, that’s when you have to pay for it at the end.”

Dingler thanked the Emergency Management staff for “really making a difference in trying to get something together fairly quickly — and for the first time.”

Dixon said once the first project is underway, it would be possible to apply for additional funding in the future, and McClain assured the city that the state staff was dedicated to making the Ocean Shores application this year.

“We’ll have more time after this to think about where we want No. 2 to be if we indeed get No. 1 funded,” Dingler added. “We’ll move forward and do our best because there is an opportunity this year.”

Design considerations

With essentially three types of structures being recommend — a building, a berm or a tower — they can be designed for multi-use, such as public access viewing, and house supplies for emergencies, such as planned at the Shoalwater Bay two-story tower. They can have ramps rather than stairs for access, and other features can be designed with the engineer and architect once the project is funded, the state officials said.

Already owning the property where the structure would be built helps with the application process, Dixon said, and it saves money that can be used for an improved design.

“If you don’t have to purchase the land, more money can be put into the structure,” he said.

Another factor is what capacity the structure will hold — how many people and supplies.

“There’s a lot of different factors, as well as how high that land is initially. That means less money that has to go into the structure itself, and you can build a more robust structure that has more people on it,” Dixon said.

Dingler said the city currently has a consultant looking at how many houses are around the proposed structure site, how often those homes are occupied, how often children are in the school building and other population factors as well.