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West Side schools test earthquake readiness

Fifth-graders Kashmir Pesicka, right, and Mason Stroud take part in the West Woodland Elementary School’s earthquake drill Thursday in Seattle. (Associated Press)
Fifth-graders Kashmir Pesicka, right, and Mason Stroud take part in the West Woodland Elementary School’s earthquake drill Thursday in Seattle. (Associated Press)

Schools in the coastal communities of Grays Harbor are doing their best to prepare for as little loss of life as possible in the event of a devastating earthquake – especially one off the coast – and the tsunami that could follow.

However, in the wake of Thursday’s Great Shakeout earthquake drill, some are still finding that they are not as prepared as they would like to be.

Unlike Aberdeen and Hoquiam, certain districts, like North Beach and Ocosta, find themselves in precarious situations, with no ability to climb to higher ground and often structures built before such natural forces were taken into consideration.

A new megaquake scenario by the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup shows an estimated 20 to 30 minutes before a tsunami were a large earthquake to occur in the nearby Cascadia Subduction Zone. The report predicts a one in 10 chance of such an earthquake occurring within the next 50 years, and that more than 10,000 people could perish and more than triple that amount could be injured in its wake.

The vulnerability of Grays Harbor’s beach communities is painfully clear. With no real high ground to evacuate to, going up to the higher floors of existing buildings is the only option. But the Ocosta School District is forging ahead with a new idea.

Ocosta voters approved a $13.8 million bond measure earlier this year for the construction of a new school that will include a first-of-its-kind “vertical evacuation refuge” built into the structure of the new gym, according to district Superintendent Paula Akerlund.

The structure would be the first in the nation. It will be built high enough to withstand the strongest tsunami surges and will be able to host more than 1,000 people on the roof. But, Akerlund hopes some grant funds will help expand the project to help even more people. The district is currently in the process of trying to get a $2.25 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to extend the size and scope of the project.

The grant looks to extend the project’s capabilities and size so that 1,500, including many Westport residents, will fit.

Akerlund said they are expected to start construction next summer.

Currently, Ocosta children drill for earthquakes and tsunamis by dropping to the floor, covering and holding and then evacuating vertically – to the second floor of the high school. It is a shaky solution, but one they will have to rely on until the new structure is built.

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