LA PUSH – The Quileute Tribal School is perched just a stone’s throw from a rugged ocean beach framed by sea stacks and islands and splashed by powerful waves at this remote northwest corner of the United States.
At recess, the children burn off energy on a playground that’s occasionally assaulted by logs tossed ashore during winter storms.
A log on the playground is an ominous sign, but nothing like the specter of a tsunami that could come crashing down on the school and surrounding village from a mega-earthquake off the Washington coast or in Japan or somewhere else in the earthquake-ridden Pacific Ocean rim where oceanic and continental tectonic plates collide.
“If they’re not paying attention and there’s a tsunami, the children are in grave danger,” said school principal Al Zantua.
Moving the school to higher ground is a top priority of the tribe, said Quileute tribal chairwoman Bonita Cleveland. It’s one of the main reasons the tribe has been trying for decades to reclaim some of its ancestral land from the federal government so it can relocate the lower village to higher ground.
The 400 families who live at sea level in the lower village, the tribal headquarters and the elder center also are in harm’s way and would be moved to higher ground under the tribe’s long-range plan.
Historically, tribal members moved freely on the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. They spent winters along the rivers and in the old-growth forests in relative safety and comfort, far from the coastal storms and river flooding that plague their tiny reservation at the mouth of the Quileute River, said tribal council member DeAnna Hobson.
“For more than 100 years we’ve been pressed up against the sea on a 1.5-square-mile reservation, even though the treaty says we should have land sufficient for our needs – not only for safety, but for the future of the tribe,” Hobson said.
The recent catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan were frightening reminders of what could happen to the Quileute Tribe, tribal member Denise Williams said.
“I have a 13-year-old daughter attending the tribal school,” Williams said. “She was really shaken up by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.”
While the death and destruction on the northeast coast of Japan are still fresh in everyone’s mind, the tribe has stepped up its lobbying effort for an ambitious village relocation project.
Last week, Cleveland and several other tribal officials were in Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress on a bill that would designate 800 acres of Olympic National Park for the tribe’s use.
“The natural disaster in Japan really did highlight what we face,” Cleveland said. “It shows how urgent it is for the tribe to get back our land.”
The region where the oceanic and continental plates collide is 80 miles out to sea from La Push, geologists have confirmed. It’s the potential site of a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami similar to what just occurred in Japan.
Computer models of the Cascadia subduction zone suggest that Quileute Tribe members would have about 20 to 30 minutes after such an earthquake to flee to higher ground in advance of major flooding and a tsunami, state geologist Tim Walsh said.
But the energy generated by the earthquake could first tear the village apart and wipe out the only road leading out of La Push, Walsh said.
School officials have been practicing tsunami evacuations in which they load the 80 students on school buses and drive out of the village to higher ground. It takes about six to eight minutes, barring complications, Zantua said.
State emergency management officials question the wisdom of relying on school buses when, in fact, the road could be destroyed by the earthquake.
“They really shouldn’t consider driving,” Walsh said. “We encourage people to evacuate on foot.”
There’s another complication to a smooth evacuation of the village: The siren installed to warn villagers of an approaching tsunami is hard to hear in the southeast end of the village, tribal executive director Bill Peach said. Acoustical studies are scheduled to determine if the siren should be moved.
Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes happen at intervals of several hundred years. The last one to strike the Washington coast was in 1700.
“There’s archaeological evidence that our old village sank into the sea back then,” Cleveland said.
There are also oral histories and legends from coastal tribes believed to represent subduction zone earthquakes.
In a 1934 Utah Academy of Sciences journal, U.S. Indian Field Service ethnologist Albert B. Reagan recounted epic struggles between Thunderbird (wind) and Whale (water):
“There were a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters,” according to one story told by the Hoh and Quileute tribes. “The people took to their canoes and floated off as the winds and currents wafted them, as there was neither sun nor land to guide them. Many canoes also came down in trees and were destroyed, and numerous lives were lost.”
Cleveland said securing the land on higher ground is essential to keeping the tribe alive.
“I feel like our ancestors are with us in this effort,” she said. “They did all the hard work.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444