Bracing for tsunamis: It's in tribal DNA

Centuries of oral tradition make Indian tribes and indigenous islanders better prepared to deal with seaquakes and tsunamis.
Crosscut archive image.

A tsunami hazard warning on the Oregon Coast.

Centuries of oral tradition make Indian tribes and indigenous islanders better prepared to deal with seaquakes and tsunamis.


On the day of the Great Shake-Out earlier this month, the children at the Makah tribal school joined students, city workers and business people across the country in a simulated earthquake.

They ducked under desks and held tight. Then they lined up in rows outside and hiked up the street to a designated assembly area.

It’s a routine drill. But add the potential reality of felled power lines, blocked roads —  and a 30-foot monster wave barreling toward a shoreline that’s just over 500 yards from the school’s front door —  and you start to wonder if those little legs can make it to higher ground in time.

New research by Portland geologist Curt D. Peterson reveals just how devastating historic megathrust earthquakes and ensuing tsunamis likely were in the Neah Bay region. Unlike the 2001 Nisqually "deep" earthquake, megathrust earthquakes — birthed off the coast of Washington when the Juan de Fuca plate pushes beneath the continental North American plate — last longer and produce significant aftershocks as well as tsunamis, resulting in far greater damage and loss of life.

According to Peterson's research, there have been at least three of these megathrust quakes in the last 1,300 years. Many know about the most recent, dated to 1700 A.D. and described as being similar to Japan’s event in March 2011. But there were also bigger earthquakes. On the outer coast, where the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula faces the vast Pacific Ocean, Peterson calculates that a megathrust quake about 1,300 years ago likely produced a wave at least 37 feet high that reached more than 2.5 miles inland.

And that’s a conservative estimate.

“It would have been terrifying,” Peterson said.

In the wake of the earthquake in Japan's Tohoku region, with its wall-to-wall CNN coverage, there’s been renewed attention to the history of similar events along the Washington state coastline. Tourist destinations like the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort in Moclips have refined their evacuation plans. Procedures are posted in each of the resort’s 33 rooms, but employee Sharon Harper’s version of the plan is more to the point: “Run like hell.”

And with the last such event just over 300 years distant, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” the next major event will occur.

Still, are our coastal communities prepared? Or do places like Ocean Shores, a tourist destination of about 5,500 permanent residents that incorporated a mere 42 years ago, lack a fundamental survival gene that can only be built up over centuries of cultural tradition?

By all accounts, the Makah tribe at least is well-primed for disaster. 

On paper, the tribe’s plans are like any other emergency management department — mapping out escape routes, designating incident command posts and stockpiling supplies for the days they would expect to be without help.

Tucked into the farthest reaches of Washington state's northwestern-most tip, where there was no state highway access until the 1950s, Neah Bay is isolated. A two-lane, winding road prone to mudslides has cut off access in the past.

“At least initially, we can’t rely on the feds or the state to take care of us,” said Andrew Winck, the tribe’s emergency management coordinator. But no one seems to worry about that.

“The Makah people have been here for thousands of years because they were able to take care of themselves,” Winck said. “We work to be self-reliant.”

Tribal members also didn’t need to see the stirring video of black water inundating Japanese towns to know that they face the same dangers. Stories passed down through generations tell of likely past events —  shaded by time, but no less dramatic —  that lend a special emotional oomph to the need for preparedness.

It’s the same reason many remote tribes in the Indian Ocean have survived similar disasters there. Tourists with the latest technological gadgets fared worse in 2004, as did locals who were relatively recent immigrants and didn’t understand the warning signs. Inhabitants of Simeulue Island, for example, escaped with relatively little loss of life thanks to oral histories of a similar disaster in 1907.

"The upshot is, if we could reproduce this level of awareness that some people get from traditional stories, it would serve as a very effective way to mitigate the effects of tsunamis, and it could be transmitted over many generations," tsunami expert Simon Day told a UC Santa Cruz writer in 2007. 


Day found that showing people video footage of past volcanic eruptions helped make them more willing to self-prepare for those types of disasters than "top-down" methods built on seisometers, gauges, buoys and sirens. This kind of video education, he said, breeds the same type of take-it-seriously attitude that indigenous populations seem to come to culturally. As a result, he has called for education programs that use video footage of major earthquake and tsunami disasters to mitigate loss of life. 

More than a year after horrific images from Japan, however, researchers and emergency management coordinators on this coastline say we’ve still got a lot to learn.

“[The Makah] know they need to run to high ground,” said Peterson, the Portland geologist. “What I’m worried about is everybody else. … You go to another coastal town and ask at a McDonald’s — nobody knows what to do.”

Chuck Wallace, Grays Harbor County Emergency Management's deputy director, said there’s been significant progress, but that there’s always a fight against “the ebbs and flows” of people's interest in the topic.

“It’s been over 18 months now since [the Japanese] event. So people begin to forget,” Wallace said.

Most folks know in at least a vague sense to move to higher ground when they feel the earth shake, he said, but what they don't know are the details — that they likely won’t be able to drive to safety, or that the canned food they packed away over a year ago has since expired. Many do not have a family plan for any kind of emergency.

“We’ve been pushing this information for years and years and years. What are we doing wrong?" he asks. "Somewhere there’s a disconnect.”

Folks in his line of work need to focus less on handing people checklists, Wallace said, and instead find a way to get people to take ownership of the issue. Places with a cultural value for disaster preparedness  — indigenous groups as well as the Japanese — have already unlocked that.

“Now here, we have a culture where we say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to do a drill. I don’t want to get under my table, I’ll look stupid.’ … We’re waiting for Day 3 and hoping the National Guard comes in,” he said.

Still, experts know that if there’s one thing that can get folks’ attention, it’s kids. Schools have been a focal point in recent efforts to affect more dramatic change.

In his county, Wallace said there are plans underway to build a vertical evacuation site for children in the Ocosta School District in Westport, where there likely would not be enough time to get to higher ground. 

But there’s nothing in the works for other schools in the inundation zone, in Ocean Shores, Moclips or Ocean City, towns with a combined population of nearly 6,000 and certainly no plans to relocate.

“Nobody has $50 million to go out and change the schools overnight. This has to be long-term planning, for the future,” Wallace said.

If he takes a cue from another Northwest tribe, the Quileute, Wallace should prepare to work at it for about five decades.

The Quileute reservation teeters on one square mile of land, where the Quillayute River meets the ocean. All of the tribe’s critical infrastructure is at sea level, and flooding has been a recurring problem. Some of the lowest-lying areas are being swallowed up by salt water. In the event of a tsunami, there would be little left of the hamlet.

Tribal leaders have pushed federal lawmakers for more land for decades, but it was only recently that they finally found success. Last week, the tribe celebrated at Akalat Center in LaPush, commemorating a new federal law (signed by the president in February) that transfers 785 acres of Olympic National Park land to the tribe so that it can move out of harm's way.

The trust land more than doubles the reservation’s size.

Plans are inching forward as the tribe leaps through the early logistical hoops of making the transfer. The first to move to higher ground will be the school and elder care center, as well as some homes and tribal administration buildings, said Jackie Jacobs, a tribe spokeswoman.

“The celebration is just a culmination of 50 years of determination and unwavering commitment by ancestors and elders and tribal council members to make sure their people were not annihilated,” Jacobs said. “It’s an opportunity to recognize all those people and just lift their hands in gratitude and to mark this historic event.”

The Quileute historically were a semi-nomadic tribe and moved to different areas as the seasons and weather dictated, Jacobs said.

“They had 24,000 acres before they were relegated to one square mile,” she said. “Then they became trapped because of their treaty … and placed on the ocean.”

The land acquisition will allow the tribe to follow their instincts, she said.

“Respect for mother nature," Jacobs said. "It’s in the DNA of the indigenous tribes of this land and there’s an enormous respect for her power.”



Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors