LB abandons $4M tsunami shelter project

Ariel Smith

LONG BEACH — The city is halting work on what would have been the first tsunami shelter of its kind in North America.

New scientific reports and preliminary findings of a study foiled the city’s plan to build a 32-foot-tall cement berm behind Long Beach Elementary School.

The city last month received the early findings of a study that indicates the berm would need to be built 62.4 feet above average high tide to keep people safe during a worst-case tsunami. That’s a considerable increase from the 48-foot standard the city had been using to design the shelter, which was meant to keep about 800 safe.

“It’s not feasible to build a berm that high,” Community Development Director Ariel Smith said. “It’d basically sink into the ground.”

The project, which was two-thirds of the way through the design process, has cost $449,500 so far, she said. The city spent at least $56,000 of its money on the project. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Washington State Military Emergency Management Division picked up the rest of the tab.

The City Council did not include any money for the project in the 2018 budget, Long Beach Administrator David Glasson said.

The city delayed the project after an engineer with the American Society of Civil Engineers reached out in late 2016 to let Long Beach leaders know new research was coming out in 2017 that would likely change the standards for building shelters for a worst-case tsunami.

However, scientists and engineers with the national society and the state disagreed on the new findings, Glasson said. Some suggested the city would need to build a 50-foot-tall berm to keep people safe.

“We had experts upon experts upon experts arguing among themselves,” Glasson said.

So the city asked researchers at the University of Washington for help. UW agreed and didn’t charge the city for the study.

Long Beach was also able to use the donation of the study as its match for the design grant, Glasson said.

The city estimated the berm would cost of about $4 million to design and construct. Long Beach had been approved for another federal grant of $1.5 million and $250,000 from the state to help pay for it. But if the city wanted to build a taller berm, they’d have to start over, Glasson said.

“You can look at it as fortunate or unfortunate,” he said.

On one hand, the berm could have saved lives. On the other, Glasson said, building it might have given people a false sense of security if it wasn’t adequate for a worst-case tsunami.

City and Pacific County officials say dozens of evacuation sites are needed to provide enough tsunami shelters for the county’s year-round population of about 20,500 and its swell of seasonal residents and tourists.

Glasson and County Emergency Management Director Scott McDougall estimate it would take about 30 berms, towers and buildings to keep people out of harm’s way.

Without a tsunami evacuation shelter, the best people can do is get to high ground quickly after an earthquake. Glasson said once the shaking stops, Peninsula residents should have about 25 minutes before the towering waves and flooding water comes.

Experts and emergency managers say most people survive tsunamis. But those who live on the Peninsula should be ready to fend for themselves for weeks in the aftermath of a disaster, while waiting for help to arrive.

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