Storm fatigue: Quileute Tribe seeks higher ground

Credit: King County Office of Emergency Management

The town of La Push, located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and home to the Quileute Indian Tribe, offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors from around the world travel to the area for the legendary surfing or to hike in the nearby Olympic National Park. As the weather roughens during fall and winter, tourists flock for the spectacular storm watching.

“So many people love the storms and come to watch them,” says Bonita Cleveland, Quileute Tribal chairwoman. “It seems so ironic.”  

For Quileute residents, storm watching is not entertainment. It is an unwelcome necessity. Part of the Quileute reservation, including the tribal school, elder center, offices, and homes, are located directly at sea level on the coast. A natural disaster such as Japan’s catastrophic tsunami last spring would devastate the area and potentially kill hundreds.

The Quileute people have prepared as best as they can, but funding is scarce and their situation is dire. Signs emblazoned with “Tsunami Hazard Zone” are posted throughout the area. A tsunami warning siren sits in the lower village, hopefully ready to sound the alarm, but it frequently malfunctions. Even if the siren sounds the eight-minute warning, it might be too late. If an earthquake originates at the Cascadia fault, just off the coast, the resulting tsunami will hit La Push within minutes — far faster than the signal can predict.

“The Japan tsunami was a horrific reminder that time is not on our side,” said Carol Hatch, secretary of the Quileute Tribal Council. “We have to move to higher ground now,” she says.  

The Quileute Tribe has inhabited the Northwest Coast for thousands of years, but now occupies only one-square mile of designated land. Much of the Quileute Nation’s historic hunting and fishing grounds became part of the 1 million acres comprising the Olympic National Park. Over the past decade, natural erosion has further decreased the Quileute area and resulted in closer proximity to the coast.

“Natural erosion is wiping out part of the lower village and there is nothing we can do about it,” says Cleveland, who has lived in the area her entire life. “It’s been a significant amount of property that’s been lost.” 

The tribe has relocated as much of the lower village as possible, but have exhausted all safe, available land. They have been lobbying for nearly 30 years to obtain additional property on higher ground.

The Quileute Tribal School is in a particularly precarious position. During high tide, the ocean is as close as 100 yards from the school and the Quillayute River is only 70 feet away. Approximately 80 students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, attend the school and an additional 50 children attend the early childhood program.

In March, the school and parts of the lower village were evacuated after receiving warning that Japan’s tsunami waves might reach La Push. It was a forceful reminder of their perilous position, but not the first. The lower village is impacted by periodic flooding.

“Year after year, floods occur and we’re always having to move people out of their houses and into temporary shelters. It’s been an ongoing problem,” says Cleveland. Enormous drift logs breached the jetties last year. They landed near the school parking lot, forcing everyone to move their vehicles. 

“If we had a major catastrophe, the school would be right in the danger zone,” says Al Zantua, tribal school principal. 

There are periodic drills to help students practice evacuation. Children as young as preschool run to board one of two buses that will hopefully transport them to higher ground. Unfortunately, one bus is currently in disrepair.

Even with both buses operational, there is only one road in and out of the village. With an average of 12 feet of rain per year, the road is often submerged in 3 to 4 of feet water. If it is inaccessible, there is no escape route at all.

“We are constantly under the threat of a tsunami and are bringing our children into what is kind of a dangerous area. We need to be doing the opposite,” says Zantua. “Our kids are the future and will be leading the tribe. It is essential to take them out of harm’s way.” 

Relocating has been a priority for the Quileute Tribe for decades. “This has been in the works way before my time,” says Cleveland. The Japan tsunami, however, highlighted the immediate need for a permanent solution.

In March, Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Norm Dicks introduced legislation to protect the Quileute Tribe. Representative Dicks sponsored the “Quileute Indian Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection” bill in the House of Representatives and Senator Cantwell co-sponsored with Senator Patty Murray the Senate version (House bill 1162 and Senate bill 636, respectively.) The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved the legislation on July 28 and it now awaits consideration by the full Senate. Representative Dicks is working with the House Natural Resources Committee and seeking parallel action.

The new legislation would reallocate 785 acres from the Olympic National Park to the Quileute Tribe, including 220 acres designated as natural wilderness. Other aspects of the legislation include increased public access to area beaches such as Rialto and Second Beach.

“The goal of this legislation is to help the tribe move all of its tribal facilities out of the tsunami zone and away from the threat of flooding from the river,” Cantwell said during the legislative hearing process. “It is sensible legislation that would increase economic opportunities and safeguard the Quileute families and their properties.”  

While Cleveland believes that Japan’s disaster was probably an “awakening” for legislators, she stresses that the bill was not rushed into existence. The Quileute Tribe has worked closely with representatives from the Olympic National Park for an extended period of time to reach a mutually-beneficial solution. The park service has already expressed their support.

Cleveland also addressed cost concerns while testifying at the Washington, D.C., hearings held in April.

“I want to be very clear that Senator Cantwell’s bill requires minimal federal costs. There are no federal dollars going to the Quileute Tribe for this settlement, only federal land,” Cleveland testified. 

The proposed legislation has no definite timeline nor guaranteed outcome, but Cleveland says that the tribe would begin relocating as soon as possible if the bill passes. The tribe hopes that progress will be made before the impending fall and winter seasons.

“The threat of tsunamis is a harsh reality that the Quileutes have faced every day and we need to pass this legislation as soon as possible so the Tribe can move to safer ground outside the tsunami zone,” stated Representative Dicks upon introducing the legislation. 

For the sake of his students, Zantua hopes that the rest of the Senate and House will support Senator Cantwell’s and Representative Dicks’ sense of urgency. “I think that if the politicians or government were to come and view the area, they would see the immediate need,” he says.

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