Coastal Tribes work to Reduce Vulnerability to Sea Rise and Tsunamis

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Image by xtinarson from Pixabay

Native tribes on the Olympic Peninsula are growing anxious and taking steps about the threats to their low-lying land from tsunamis. More about that below, but let’s start with some Native lore about deadly tidal waves.

Tiss TEEJ lahl, Thunderbird, lives in a glacier on Mount Olympus.  He makes thunder flapping his wings and wind blinking his eyes.  Lighting flashes from his swoops and the feathered serpents he casts down as bolts. He eats whales and keeps leftovers high in his icy cave. If hunters approach too closely, he scares them off with thundering avalanches.  

In native myths, when a killer whale he caught in his talons fought back, Thunderbird brought it to the Quileute homeland where the battle tore huge trees out by their roots.  He killed the whale, but the trees never grew back.  A fight at sea with the terrible Mimlos (killer) whale caused a great flood that stripped the bark from trees.  Carried inland, the fighting tore out more trees which, again, did not grow back.  The Mimlos whale escaped, but up and down the peninsular coast, treeless, fertile prairies marked the battlegrounds.

These and other myths were collected by anthropologist Albert B. Reagan (1871-1936) from Quileute and Hoh informants in the early 20th century when he was Indian Agent on their reservations.  Thunderbird represents storms; Whale the floods that people feared most, barreling in from the sea.  One account describes a particularly violent episode.

Thunderbird was very angry one time.  He caused the ocean to rise.  When the water began to cover things, the Quileute got into their boats.  The waters rose for four days. They rose until the very tops of the mountains were covered with water.  The Quileute sailed wherever the wind and the currents carried them.  They had no way to direct themselves.  There was no sun.  There was no land.  For four days the water receded. But now the people were much scattered.  When they reached land some of the people were at Hoh; so they lived there from that time on.  Others landed at Chemakum [near Port Townsend] and stayed there.  Only a few succeeded in finding their way back to Quileute.

The myth combines two versions: a world myth describing a universal deluge—Noah’s flood in the Book of Genesis is an example — and a regional event, a historical catastrophe. Until the mid-20th century no one knew what produced these sea-borne floods other than that they were associated with earthquakes.  The Japanese word for such waves, tsunami, means “harbor wave.”  In the west we once called them tidal waves, but because of detailed Japanese records, tsunami is now the accepted term.  

It was not until 1946 when a tsunami caused loss of life in Hawaii that the post-war United States set up the Pacific Tsunami System to warn Pacific Ocean nations.  After tsunamis generated by the magnitude 9.6 Chilean earthquake in 1960 (the largest yet recorded), and the magnitude 9.2 Alaskan earthquake of 1964 struck the Washington Coast, regional authorities organized the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.  But it was not until the late 1960s, when the geology that produced the waves—slippage along subduction zones sliding beneath moving continental margins (continental drift and sea-floor spreading) was better understood that an effective response could be pursued. 

Initially it was thought that the Cascade Subduction Zone 80 miles off the Olympic Coast did not produce severe earthquakes, and tsunamis from distant sources were considered the primary threat.  In response, Northwestern coastal communities posted signs directing the public to higher ground reachable in what was considered a safe 30 minutes.

In 1986, however, paleontologist Brian Atwater discovered “ghost forests” on the Makah Indian Reservation where large sections of the coast had fallen several meters and invading sea water killed trees.  Research further south on the Copalis River revealed the same, and tree ring dating carried out by dendrochronologist David Yamaguchi showed that a rapid and catastrophic subsidence had occurred between August 1699 and May 1700. 

On January 27, 1700, a midnight tsunami ten feet tall struck the Japanese main island of Honshu.  Houses were destroyed and fishermen drowned.  Rice crops killed by invading sea water led to famine.  Such waves are frequent in Japan, but because this one was not associated with an earthquake and seemed to come out of nowhere, it was called the Orphan Tsunami.  

Working back from the Japanese data, Atwater and Yamaguchi determined that a magnitude 8.7 to 9.2 earthquake occurred 8,000 miles away on the Cascadia subduction zone at 9 pm, Tuesday, January 26, 1700.  A compression wave travelling 500 miles an hour radiated from the epicenter.  A western segment of the widening wave struck Japan ten hours later.  Heading east CORRECTED FROM WEST from the subduction zone, however, the barely diminished wave took only 40 minutes to reach the coast, rearing 30 feet when it struck. 

The mysterious source of the Orphan Tsunami had been found, and subsequent work along the coast in the 1990s showed that tsunamis reoccurred in cycles varying from 300-800 years.  In 2005, University of Washington researcher Ruth Ludwin published a compendium of regional myths that preserved detailed memories of them. I was part of that project, mapping Duwamish myth sites in the Seattle area associated with earthquakes and landslides. 

Three hundred years later on Washington’s coast, native accounts detail the horrific fate of those in the tsunami’s path.  Without warning a dark January night exploded in chaos.  Most victims drowned; others swept into trees fell to their deaths. Bodies were mangled.  Locations of families buried under debris were later revealed by swarms of ants.  Today’s native coastal groups: Chinook, lower Chehalis, Quinault, Quileute, Hoh, and Makah are all descendants of these numbed survivors.  Graphic details of their trauma remain vivid in communal memories.

The 9.2 magnitude 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami killed 250,000.  In 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami killed over 17,000 in Japan.  Paradoxically, it was poor, vulnerable Bangladesh that pioneered an effective response.  

A 1970 storm surge from the Bhola Cyclone (hurricane/typhoon) killed more than 500,000.  A 1991 surge killed over 150,000.  On the flat Ganges River delta, the only escape direction was up.  In 1970 only 42 reinforced concrete cyclone shelters topped wave crests.  Today more than 12,000 vertical shelters protect 5 million coastal people.  Forecasting, warning, and evacuation have reduced the death toll from hundreds of thousands to bare tens.  The idea was to have enough vertical shelters nearby so that people had time to escape. On Washington’s coast, however, continuing research showed that residents had not 30 minutes to drive to high ground but only 15 minutes to escape a tsunami.

In 2008, after the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) rated Washington’s potential for seismic damage second only to California’s, the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division began working on Project Safe Haven to meet the threat. 

The Indonesian tsunami had prompted the Ocosta School District in Westport on Grays Harbor to sponsor a 2009 levy to rebuild its schools with escape in mind, but in an economically distressed area, the effort failed.  However, residents on the Long Beach Peninsula, representing Pacific County’s densest population, took up the issue and worked with Project Safe Haven officials and supporting institutions, including the Ocosta District, to plan construction of vertical evacuation structures (towers), berms, and buildings as refuges.  

First to be completed was Ocosta Elementary School that rebuilt its complex in 2014 to include an elevated structure that can hold and supply 1,000 people during an emergency.  Soon, 32 towers, plus berms and buildings, will rise in Pacific and Grays Harbor Counties, from the Columbia River north to Tahola, capital of the Quinault nation, hopefully before the next big wave arrives.

Winter tides and storm surges have also grown more destructive as sea level rises nearly two feet in the last century, another two by 2100.  The most isolated group on Washington’s coast, the 100 or so Chah LAH At native people on the Hoh Reservation, live between the Quinault and Makah reservations surrounded by the Olympic National Seashore, a permanent community on Jefferson County’s wild Pacific coast.  

In the 1850s, the federal government blithely located the Hoh Reservation in the flood zone of the Hoh River.  Viola Reiba, a tribal elder, recalled when her family were smelting on the shore and the water suddenly disappeared.  She and the rest of the children wanted to explore the exposed beach, but their uncle, waving his hat for them to come in, drove them in his old car to higher ground as native tradition warned.  A few minutes later the Chilean tsunami swept ashore, but thanks to tribal wisdom, no one died.  

For 50 years the Hoh tribe petitioned Congress for access to higher ground, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, and FEMA, all multi-billion-dollar agencies, pleaded poverty, avoided responsibility, and did nothing.  In the meantime, erosion and sea level rise reduced the original 540-acre reservation to 224 acres.  On its own the impoverished tribe purchased 260 acres of privately owned land above the tsunami zone.  

The state, led by Gov, Chris Gregoire, provided another 160 acres.  Finally, in 2009, prodded by the Obama Administration and Democratic leaders, Congress passed the Hoh Indian Tribal Safe Homelands Act, restoring a 37-acre parcel of the Olympic National Park to the tribe, which connected the other parcels and provided a road from their village. 

On the Quinault Reservation, winter surf pounding Rialto Beach makes the notion of terra firma seem at best an abstraction, and huge drift logs plowing into the Quileute Tribal School’s play field threaten death and destruction.  A treaty in 1856 reduced the reservation’s size to a square mile vulnerable to tsunamis and river floods, keeping the tribe’s children and the only school that teaches their language in constant peril.  Eighty years later, conservationists succeeded in enclosing the nearest high ground into Olympic National Park.  For decades, the tribe sought help, but it was only in 2011, early enough in the Obama administration to avoid Republican obstruction, that Congressional Democrats were able to pass the Act to “Provide the Quileute Indian Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection,” restoring 774 acres of higher park land to the Tribe.  Work on the K-12 school, located 250 feet above sea level, began this month, and the tribe earnestly awaits its opening scheduled for 2022.

Project Safe Haven is also active in Clallam County.  On the Makah Reservation, prior to planned construction of their own refuge, tribal members know to put aside a three-day supply pack to grab when they need to run to nearby high ground. Although the Juan de Fuca Strait coast is generally high bank, conservative property rights disputes have delayed planning for low-lying urbanized areas like Sequim.

Intelligent, dedicated residents in Washington’s coastal communities provided the leadership to overcome political inertia and partisan stupidity.  The groundwork for safety has been laid, so when the next big wave comes, physical damage will be great, but the horrors recalled in myth and legend need not be repeated.  

Generated by a great subduction quake, a destructive tsunami will enter Puget Sound.  But underlying this inlet are other active faults that have generated waves higher than those experienced on the outer coast.  Because of urban density, the danger they pose is far deadlier.

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