Washington County Plans U.S.’ First Vertical Evacuation Tsunami Building

Chuck Wallace discusses tsunami mitigation measures in Grays Harbor County, Wash., including its plans for a vertical evacuation, tsunami-engineered, safe haven building.

by Eric Holdeman / December 11, 2014

Chuck Wallace is the deputy director of emergency management for Grays Harbor County, Wash., a Pacific Ocean-facing county. He is a 31-year veteran of the fire service, retiring from the Philadelphia Fire Department in 2007. In addition to his duties in emergency management, he also serves as the fire chief at Grays Harbor County Fire Protection District #11 and as an elected fire commissioner for Grays Harbor County Fire Protection District #11. In addition to his county duties, he serves on a number of regional emergency management committees. Currently attending Evergreen State College, Wallace expects to graduate in June 2015 with a master’s degree in public administration.

Wallace participated in an interview with Emergency Management to share the challenges and success he has had in promoting tsunami mitigation measures in his county. Wallace also addresses the county’s vertical evacuation, tsunami-engineered, safe haven building, which he says is the first in North America.

What are the significant hazards in your community?

The most significant hazards in Grays Harbor County begin with the fact we are within 20 to 30 minutes of a devastating tsunami, which could be triggered by an event along the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake fault line. The majority of the critical infrastructure along the coastal region of the county — such as schools, government buildings, business and industry, police and fire stations — is situated within the tsunami inundation zone. Grays Harbor County also lies within the earthquake region of the Pacific Northwest and is susceptible to inland earthquakes, severe winter storms with hurricane force winds and major flooding events.

How do you feel about the general disaster readiness of governments, public safety agencies, businesses and individuals that live and work in your county?

If one looks at Japan, considered the best prepared country in the world for disaster and the impacts of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and New York City, considered the most prepared area of the U.S. in terms of homeland security funding, training and preparation, and the impact of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, I don’t believe any of us are prepared to handle our worst-case scenarios. However, continued attempts to lessen the impacts upon our communities remain the only option we have.

I see a movement toward improved disaster readiness from every aspect, still the continued depressed economic environment we all face remains a barrier for most to achieve greater resiliency. There is a universal desire for more education on specific effects any hazard could inflict upon any business, jurisdiction or agency in particular and whether they could survive the economic impact presented by an event.

All are working to improve general disaster readiness. The movements are slow moving yet positive, creating small differences that will lessen the impact upon government, business, industry and communities.

Pre-disaster mitigation is not always an easy sell to the people and organizations that have to fund it. How have you approached educating organizations about disaster mitigation and its benefits?

Continued education to all is the most significant approach I have seen. Many have never been told about the site specific impacts a disaster could have upon their family, their homes, business or the school their child attends. Without knowledge, how do we expect our citizens to make sound decisions for their family prior to and during disaster and emergency situations?
Presenting the economic impacts of a particular disaster event to government, industry and business greatly contributes to the significance on the discussion of pre-disaster mitigation. The process is slow and there are few current opportunities to move forward with necessary proposals. Opportunity presents itself from time to time such as following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Superstorm Sandy or recently the Carlton Complex wildfires and the Oso landslide. Any progress made is positive for all. The ultimate goal is to eventually have all communities, governments and individuals prepared to withstand the major effects of any hazard, limiting the socio-economic impacts upon the whole community.

Since the threat of a tsunami is real, what have you done over the years to educate people about the risks of a tsunami impacting your ocean-facing coast?

Education is a continuous process. I try extremely hard to present issues that have become evident through tsunami modeling and geography to the public in a way that makes it personal to them. When you can speak about their site specific issues and impacts any disaster event could have on any citizen, it strikes home. The more information I present to the citizens in that manner, the greater their desire for more information.

What role do you think the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand or the 2011 Japan tsunami have had on motivating people to take action? Without those two events, do you think you could have been successful with selling tsunami mitigation?

Any time a catastrophic event impacts someplace in the world, it grabs headlines and becomes important to the public for that moment. In time, the media leaves the affected area and the momentum emergency managers had toward spreading essential preparedness information wanes. Our window of opportunity to educate the citizens interested in the issues slowly closes. Even the Japanese earthquake and tsunami with unbelievable media coverage including “in the moment” video feeds faded from the headlines after 18 months. The events provide great opportunity to educate the public and update plans but momentum does ebb.

Selling tsunami mitigation? I hope my citizens don’t view my attempts to educate them as “selling” an issue, but when you think about it, I guess all emergency managers have a bit of carnival barker in their system. We have to present issues to our public in such a way that it becomes personal to each person. Successful is a subjective term but the way I view it, is if you can get one more person to change and prepare for emergencies and disaster every time you speak or write an article or post online, that’s progress.

You have had one significant success story for pre-disaster mitigation. How did you approach the idea of protecting K-12 school students in one community from a tsunami?

Constructing the first vertical evacuation, tsunami-engineered, safe haven building in North America, the elementary school in the Ocosta School District, came to fruition because of the sheer will of Ocosta School District Superintendent Paula Akerlund, the school board, the school district building committee and the voting citizens of the Ocosta School District.

Using the principles designed in Project Safe Haven and an opportunity presented because the school district was meeting to work on a proposal to pose to the public to vote on whether they’d support to pay a bond to fund a new elementary school, I approached Superintendent Akerlund with the idea.

She was extremely interested in the proposal to construct a safe haven building and asked if I could bring others to describe the process, costs and possible issues surrounding the project to the building committee. Once presented, the school district never hesitated in moving forward with the project. Safety of their students, staff and employees was paramount.
[In preparation for the construction of the vertical evacuation, tsunami-engineered, safe haven building, demolition of Ocosta Elementary School began on Dec. 1.]

What were the challenges you had in getting people to listen to you? And where did support for mitigation come from?

The greatest challenge was attempting to educate entire communities in two counties and a Tribal Nation, on site specific tsunami issues the Ocosta School District has. Teaching all, there is no other place to flee to except vertically and that the two-story high school building may not be high enough, even if the students, faculty and employees were evacuated to the second floor during a tsunami event.

The South Beach Bulletin, the local weekly newspaper, ran numerous articles on the issues and plans for the school prior to the vote on the school bond. Community education programs were given by members of the school and local fire districts on the hazards surrounding the school, the children and the community. One of the greatest influences was a picture of an automobile on the second floor of a building. It told a story a thousand words couldn’t have explained.

What did you achieve and why do you think you were successful?

This project is the first of its kind, not just in the U.S., but in North America. To think a small school district with just 725 students, faculty and employees representing a community encompassing the South Beach area of Grays Harbor County and Pacific County could have such a historical impact upon all coastal communities worldwide still hasn’t sunk in. This is the model all will use to protect citizens and critical infrastructure such as schools, government buildings, business, industry and police and fire stations currently situated in tsunami inundation areas.

Success of the Ocosta Elementary School project could never have occurred without three essential factors:

  • First, a great deal of federal, state and local government, public and private cooperation and funding used to provide the tsunami inundation modeling for the entire Washington state coastline, which was a huge foundation for the ability to determine the engineering needs of the project.
  • Second, Project Safe Haven provided the basis to present the concept of building a tsunami-engineered, vertical evacuation, safe haven school building to the Ocosta school superintendent and the building committee.
  • Third, open minded, willing and concerned voting citizens of the Ocosta School District who decided their children were far more important than the few dollars it will take in taxes to build a tsunami-safe school in their community.

The project is successful because countries from all over the world are asking about the progress of the school. Coastal communities in Washington state, Oregon, California and Alaska are watching and waiting for the day the project is complete in order to replicate the process to protect their citizens and provide the ability to continue government operations and critical services should a terrible disaster event occur.

What advice do you have for other emergency managers regarding how to approach promoting disaster mitigation in their communities?

I think all emergency managers have a responsibility to be the advocate for all types of mitigation needed in our communities. We know our community, we know the issues and we know our limitations. We must accept our role as advocates for change and become vocal promoters by educating and building consensus within the public, business and industry and within local government.

Looking back is there anything that you would do differently? You are getting calls from all over the world. What advice do you give people about establishing a tsunami vertical evacuation location?

We can all Monday morning quarterback our careers and specific projects. At the time I was deciding whether to speak to the superintendent of the Ocosta School District, Paula Akerlund, on the possibility of building a tsunami-engineered safe haven school building, I had no idea of the true impact the project would effect. In terms of doing things differently, each project offers its own issues and I’d have to wait to determine if I’d change anything the next time.

I tell people who call about establishing a tsunami vertical evacuation location that it is a whole community effort involving federal, state and local agencies, an open and innovative school district and superintendent and a community willing to accept responsibility for the safety of citizens. I also advise them to study the specifics surrounding Washington State Tsunami Inundation Modeling and Project Safe Haven. From there I tell them to wait, watch and observe the progress of constructing the first vertical evacuation, tsunami-engineered, safe haven building in North America at the Ocosta School District in Grays Harbor County, Wash.Ocosta+Elementary+rendering[A rendering of Ocosta Elementary School by TCF Architecture.]


This Interview was originally published by Emergency Management