Connecting to the coastline


How the UW is helping Westport prepare for a tsunami

Story by: Jackson Holtz // Video by: Kiyomi Taguchi // Photos by: Mark Stone

WESTPORT, Wash. — Each October, during the Great ShakeOut, students duck beneath their desks to drop, cover and hold — what kids in earthquake-prone regions are drilled to do when shaking and tremors begin. 

Along the Washington coastline, in addition to preparing for earthquakes, students also learn to get ready for the impending disaster brought by a tsunami. Just outside of Westport, students in the Ocosta School District are taught to seek refuge atop a 53-foot-high vertical evacuation tower, the first such structure built in the U.S., carefully engineered to withstand a tsunami wave reaching four stories high. 

Westport, a stunning peninsula at the south entrance to Grays Harbor, is known for its sandy beaches, sprawling marina and a century-old fishing industry. But proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the shifting tectonic plates below bring the risk of total devastation. 

When the “big one” hits — a magnitude 9.0 or higher Cascadia subduction zone earthquake — researchers and officials predict that within minutes of the shaking a wall of water reaching 40 feet tall will inundate the coastline, including Westport.  

The fear is that the town will experience what happened after the 2011 Tohoku magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the Japanese coast. That’s when a series of waves, some reaching 133 feet high, claimed nearly 20,000 lives and demolished infrastructure, including a nuclear power plant, leading to a secondary disaster when the reactors melted. Seaside residents had eight minutes to find higher ground. 

No one can predict when the next earthquake will occur off the Pacific Coast. Researchers believe the last Cascadia subduction zone earthquake to cause widespread destruction was three centuries ago, in 1700. The expectation, scientists believe, is that these catastrophic events recur every 250 to 500 years.  

What the community can do, according to city officials, emergency management experts and a team of University of Washington researchers and scientists, is prepare and build resilience. That will help Westport and other coastal communities be ready for a tsunami and other associated risks, including sea-level rise.  

I’m interested in that integration of how to plan for these rare and really catastrophic events, while also planning for everyday improvement,” said Dan Abramson, an associate professor of urban design and planning in the UW College of Built Environments, one of the many UW researchers who has partnered with Westport officials and other coastal communities. 

A sign reads tsunami evacuation route

Gaining a new perspective

During an earthquake and tsunami drill last October held in conjunction with the Great ShakeOut, the whirling blades of a drone hovered above the Ocosta School District’s grounds. Each year, more than 17.5 million people in the U.S. participate in the Great ShakeOut, an awareness campaign sponsored by several federal agencies held on the third Thursday of October.

In Westport, within moments of the earthquake drill, the second emergency exercise started: Blaring tsunami sirens howled from towers that strategically dot the shore, and about 600 students lined up to climb the 45 steps to the top of the evacuation tower.

While their classmates queued, members of the school’s Drone Club steadied the camera that buzzed overhead. For the first time since the school’s vertical evacuation tower was completed in 2016, the drone’s camera captured the drill from above. Another first was the presence of UW experts on site observing the drills.

“This is the first time I have been at a drill when the sirens are going. And the eeriness of that sound and the fog, in contrast with the calmness of the students, the faculty and staff, left me with this really deep impression that I hadn't experienced before. It's very eerie.”
Dan AbramsonAssociate professor of urban design and planning in the UW College of Built Environments

“This is the first time I have been at a drill when the sirens are going. And the eeriness of that sound and the fog, in contrast with the calmness of the students, the faculty and staff, left me with this really deep impression that I hadn’t experienced before,” Abramson said. “It’s very eerie.”

By 10:25 a.m., the entire school district stood under a steady drizzle atop the vertical evacuation tower.

“You’re pretty high up there,” said Grayson Bearden, a ninth grader at the time, and a drone club member. “It’s pretty cool looking out over everything.”

From the bird’s-eye perspective captured by the drone, Abramson and his UW colleagues could observe the exercise and use the footage to gather data, like how long it took everyone in the school district to reach safety, and if there’s room to accommodate more people.

While there’s ample space for neighbors and residents to join the students atop the gymnasium, the challenge is less about having space and more about proximity. Many people believe, erroneously, that they can get in a vehicle, drive away from the coast and beat the tsunami to higher ground, Abramson said.

Snarled traffic, buckling roads, failing bridges and the short amount of time until the tsunami wave comes ashore mean people in Westport and other coastal communities need to find evacuation routes to higher ground they can access by foot.

Along Westport’s beaches, an aging system of signs and trails points to higher ground and evacuation routes. In the city, the southern end of Montesano Street is built on a ridge that in higher spots may provide protection. And the base of Grays Harbor Lighthouse is another spot where residents can seek refuge. The marina, the heart of the city’s seafaring industry, is perilously positioned when a tsunami hits.

Grays Harbor Lighthouse

The Grays Harbor Lighthouse is a spot where residents can seek refuge when a tsunami hits.

Taking a holistic approach to hazard mitigation

Westport, visited for centuries by Native Americans, developed as a fishing and logging hub in the late 1800s when white settlers moved there. The year-round population today is about 2,100, with maritime industries continuing to drive the economy, along with tourism. Experts believe the population will more than double by 2030.

Kevin Goodrich is the Westport city administrator. Nearly two decades ago, he began his city career as a street maintenance worker. He now oversees critical infrastructure like the city’s waste-water treatment plant, storm water runoff systems and roads.

About six years ago, while the Ocosta School District was building the vertical evacuation tower, Goodrich began hearing about ways the UW was working with communities like Westport to help build resilience and resources to respond to a tsunami. Kiana Ballo, who grew up in Westport and attended Ocosta Schools, connected Goodrich with Abramson while she was a UW undergraduate studying Community, Environment and Planning.

“Knowing that we're small, we have limited staff capacity, the resources of an institution like the UW are huge for us. I just told Dan [Abramson], ‘Hey, whatever we can do, you know, to be a community partner, let's talk more.’”
Kevin GoodrichWestport city administrator

“Knowing that we’re small, we have limited staff capacity, the resources of an institution like the UW are huge for us,” Goodrich said. “I just told Dan, ‘Hey, whatever we can do, you know, to be a community partner, let’s talk more.’”

The UW College of Built Environments’ Institute for Hazard Mitigation Planning and Research had earlier worked with Westport and other coastal communities to plan the locations of vertical evacuation structures for the Washington State Emergency Management Division’s Project Safe Haven, created to increase the resilience of coastal communities to large-scale tsunamis.

Then, as part of the M9 Project, a UW-driven interdisciplinary approach to planning for a magnitude 9 earthquake, researchers from the UW Department of Applied Mathematics worked with Ocosta schools to help with the engineering for the vertical evacuation tower. Washington Sea Grant, a program housed at the UW, was collecting data and information to best support communities all along Washington’s coast. Researchers were creating computer models using developing science and technology to better predict what could happen along the Washington coast. And Abramson, coming from a background of grassroots community planning efforts, connected with Westport not to prescribe remedies, but to build a relationship to understand what this community can do to further prepare for a potential catastrophic disaster.

Drop, Cover and Hold

Learn more about earthquake and tsunami preparedness and the 2023 Great ShakeOut here.

In 2018, Abramson began visiting Westport to host community workshops. He shared coastal maps that show what may happen following an earthquake and tsunami, all based on the latest science and informed by supercomputers crunching available data. It’s clear from modeling and historical accounts that ocean waters will inundate the coast, picking up and spreading debris, and transforming the landscape. The earthquake itself will cause the land to subside, leaving some of the previous shore permanently underwater.

“When the water goes out, when the sea settles down, the land will not be the same anymore,” Abramson said.

The UW entered a formal agreement with Westport to leverage the university’s expertise as the city prepared an update to its comprehensive plan, the document that provides guidelines for future land use. Abramson, with grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Bullitt Foundation, brought a team of researchers and graduate students from the M9 project to Westport for community workshops, creating a symbiotic environment where undergraduate and graduate students could apply their knowledge and learning while the community gained vital resources.

The UW’s teams made a series of recommendations, including building additional vertical evacuation structures that also serve daily needs, like the one above Ocosta’s gymnasium, improving evacuation route awareness, and proposing hazards-adaptive urban design and land use policies.

As part of her UW master’s thesis in urban planning, then-graduate student Helen Stanton wrote the proposed language for Westport that incorporated hazard mitigation into its comprehensive plan. The Westport City Council in 2021 approved the document.

The city incorporated an understanding of the “new normal,” taking all the potential hazards posed by tsunamis and sea-level rise into consideration before officials approve new construction or take on other capital improvements.

A drone club takes flight

In a rural community like Westport, people like Goodrich, the city official, wear many hats. For example, he’s also coached many sports teams at Ocosta schools.

After a wrestling meet a couple of years ago, Goodrich met Andrea Mirante, who oversees the school district’s after-school programs. The two started talking. Goodrich knew that Abramson and Jeff Ban, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering, had grant funding to support using drones as a teaching tool in rural communities. The UW NHERI Natural Hazards Reconnaissance (RAPID) Facility had scanned the entire peninsula with drones and other equipment for a 3D digital model that could be used for planning. Having the community document itself would add meaning for residents, create capacity to monitor ongoing changes, and potentially train students to use the model themselves.

Mirante immediately jumped at the opportunity to get the school involved. She’d call it the Drone Club.

“And it just took off from there,” Goodrich said.

As an initial project, a group of junior high schoolers including Grayson Bearden, worked with Washington Sea Grant’s Carrie Garrison-Laney and Ashli Blow, to create a short video using the drone to show a tsunami-high perspective of a 40-foot-high wave coming ashore near the Grays Harbor Lighthouse. For the video, the students also demonstrated how to safely seek higher ground.

Ziyang Liu, a UW graduate student, supervised — drones require a licensed adult to be present for operators under age 16. The UW also provided the data for the students to most accurately portray the height of the tsunami.

Goodrich also invited the Drone Club to inspect the city’s water collection silos and stormwater drainage systems. He coordinated with the Washington State Department of Transportation to have the students fly drones near the bridge that connects Westport to the mainland and on to the larger city of Aberdeen.

“I gave them a sheet that showed all the components of a bridge abutment and the bridge deck, so they could kind of learn how the bridge is put together,” Goodrich said. The students could begin to ask important questions: What happens if the bridge collapses? Or cracks?

The students got experience operating the drone, and they learned about critical infrastructure, engineering and public works. Meanwhile, Goodrich and others have been able to use the drone video to collect data to better plan for catastrophic events. Being able to deploy a drone in the minutes, hours and days after such an event may help establish crucial connections to aid emergency first responders, utility operators and other officials.

The Drone Club’s success means it will continue into a second school year, Mirante said.

“We’re trying to develop a program that has interchangeable skills, so they’re learning knowledge and information about the area that they live in, and then how to keep their friends and neighbors safe,” Mirante said. “But we’re also tagging on, helping them explore career pathways, and then getting them set up with certain certifications and letters of recommendation, and just getting the students set up for success.”

Research driven by communities

The UW’s work in Westport is just a fraction of the research and connections made up and down the coastline, largely coordinated by the National Science Foundation-funded Cascadia Coastlines and Peoples Hazards Research Hub, which is working with five community collaboratories from Northern California to Bellingham.

Not far from Westport, the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe is also partnering with Abramson and colleagues from the UW College of Built Environments to  plan the community’s expansion to higher ground in anticipation of expected sea-level rise and tsunamis. “Coastlines – Camera – Action” combines social science and coastal engineering with community art and photography to study changes to Willapa Bay, part of UW EarthLab’s innovation grant program.

In La Push, researchers with the UW College of the Environment helped install a buoy that provides real-time wave height information, potentially life-and-death information for the Quileute Tribe’s fishing fleet as they navigate into the open ocean.

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, known as COASST, trains volunteers to document dead seabirds and marine debris that’s washed up on Washington’s beaches, gathering data that reflects the ocean’s health.

And back in Westport, Abramson and collaborators from the departments of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Industrial & Systems Engineering, the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and Sociology recently secured $5 million from the National Science Foundation to deploy communication technologies that Westport residents can use to both build everyday community and enhance local self-reliance in a disaster.

“If there’s something we have that they can find useful in the community, then that’s very, very gratifying,” Abramson said. “It’s their ideas that really generate a lot of the research we do.”

A related story was published by The Seattle Times.

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This story has been updated to include its original publication date.

Originally published Oct. 17, 2023