Bookmark and Share

A 'Fellowship of the Ring of Fire'

A 'Fellowship of the Ring of Fire'

By Brian Terbush
Earthquake/Volcano Program Coordinator

New Zealand and Washington state have a lot to learn from each other. And for the past 23 years, researchers from Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research (JCDR) in New Zealand have worked with officials in Washington state to better understand the disasters we have in common.

In July, a group from the university came up and toured the Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s “Auntie Lee” Tsunami Vertical Evacuation Tower in Tokeland, Washington. The tour happened just shy of the one-year anniversary of the tower opening.

Massey University’s research has focused on our common hazards and developing a better understanding of how people living around earthquake, volcano and tsunami zones are understanding and preparing for their hazards and risk. This research helps make sure everyone gets the information they need to better understand our hazards and most importantly, what they can do about them.

“Both Washington and New Zealand are very dynamic places to live,” said Maximilian Dixon, Hazards and Outreach Program Supervisor at WA EMD. “They’re both located near subduction zones and have a whole host of potential geologic hazards related to those such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. Their climates are very similar, too, so with the rainfall and steep slopes, landslides are another hazard we share.”

“By working together to share lessons about our similar hazards, we have developed a natural partnership to understand the risk of, and ways to prepare and mitigate for, the hazards we have in common,” said Dr. Emma Hudson-Doyle, of Massey University’s JCDR.

Over the past 23 years, the JCDR has helped conduct a wide variety of studies and workshops in partnership with WA EMD, and communities around Washington. Surveys around Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker have helped us to understand whether residents in the volcano hazard zones are prepared, how well they understand the hazards, and what motivates them take preparedness actions.

Washington has also had opportunities to learn about how people actually react during earthquakes from our partners in New Zealand, who have (unfortunately) experienced quite a few damaging earthquakes during those past 23 years of collaboration. In Washington, we incorporate these lessons into outreach about the annual Great ShakeOut Drill and try to help people here learn from what those in New Zealand wish they knew before an earthquake, and how they prepared, and what actions they took while the ground shook. This information is extremely helpful for emergency management agencies in Washington at the state level, and with Washington’s counties, cities and tribes.

On this particular visit, Dr. Emma Hudson-Doyle and Dr. Lauren Vinnell of Massey University, were interested in learning more about Washington’s Tsunami Vertical Evacuation Structures. Washington’s coast is at risk from tsunamis. In some areas, the safety of high ground is not possible to reach in the short time window between the earthquake and the tsunami. In these areas, tsunami vertical evacuation structures (TVES) are a way improve evacuation options and survival chances for coastal residents.

One thing that’s become clear from years of social science research in the two countries is that getting prepared for a future disaster doesn’t mean there is one approach that works the same way for everyone. Different communities need to adopt different approaches, in ways that work for them and are based on their own values and circumstances. However, there are a lot of common steps that are required. By learning what those common steps are in preparedness, "templates" can be developed and shared, which communities can then customize based on their values, resources, and options. Working with disaster researchers can help us all to distill those common steps and help provide this information.

Four onlookers (two men, two women) listen to Shoalwater Bay Tribal Emergency Manger Ken Ufkin as he talks about the features of the tower, and the ways it is being equipped with emergency supplies. This is taking place on the first level of the shelter, which is covered.  In the background are propane heat lamps, and a staircase behind leading up to the second floor/top platform of the shelter.

Photos by Shana Lombard. Partners from the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, Washington Emergency Management Division and Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research share ideas.

In Washington, there are two tsunami vertical evacuation structures located on the coast – The Ocosta Elementary School Gymnasium, which opened in 2016, and the “Auntie Lee” Tower, in Tokeland Washington, built by the Shoalwater Bay Tribe and opened on Aug. 5, 2022.

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s Emergency Manager, Ken Ufkin, has been working hard to ensure that the Tower will adequately serve the needs of those needing to use it during a tsunami – both members of the Shoalwater bay Tribe, and other community members living in Tokeland.

“As we reflect on the journey towards enhancing our community's resilience, the Auntie Lee Tower stands as a testament to our collective efforts in earthquake preparedness.” Ufkin said. “This beacon of hope and safety, strategically located about 1.2 miles from the end of the Tokeland peninsula, is within a 30-minute walking distance for approximately 150 Tokeland residents.”

Ufkin helped arrange a tour for Washington EMD and the guests from New Zealand. He showed all the progress that has been made to help ensure the tower is well-supplied with everything people will need to survive for a couple of days in the event of a tsunami. “We've taken painstaking measures to equip the tower with essential resources. From emergency communication radios to medical supplies, food, water, and basic sanitation facilities, our goal is to ensure the tower serves as a reliable refuge during the initial surge of a potential tsunami.”

So how does learning about our vertical evacuation structures help our colleagues in New Zealand? The Hikurangi Subduction Zone, just off the coast of New Zealand puts the country in a very similar situation to Washington’s. A large subduction zone earthquake there also has the potential to create devastating tsunamis, which could reach the coast in 10 to 20 minutes. In areas where high ground is far away, building vertical evacuation structures is an option to create a high point as sanctuary that can increase survival chances for people living in tsunami zones by reducing the time it takes for them to get to the safety of higher ground.

“Unfortunately, we have communities living in areas where it would be very difficult to get to safety from a tsunami in time. So, we’re keen to learn from our partners in Washington who face the same problems, and have begun building TVES as part of their solution. It’s a solution that may be considered in New Zealand, so being able to learn from the challenges and successes of people who have actually done it is invaluable.” Dr. Lauren Vinnell said.

Dr Emma Hudson-Doyle also highlighted the important knowledge sharing this visit provided: “In particular, understanding the community processes for how the TVES was designed, the engineering and other options considered in its design, and the decision for where it was located, have provided invaluable insights for us to take back to colleagues in New Zealand. These lessons will inform a number of projects there, such as those exploring how evacuation routes and simulated evacuation behaviors can inform TVES locations.”

Ufkin emphasized that this tower is only intended to be used in case of a near-source tsunami, or one where residents in the area can feel the earthquake shaking. On the coast, if you feel earthquake shaking: drop, cover and hold on, then follow evacuation routes to high ground, because the shaking may be the only warning you receive for an approaching tsunami which could arrive within 10 to 20 minutes. If there is a warning for a distant tsunami, such as one coming from Alaska, residents are encouraged to seek higher ground along the coast, since there will be several hours before it arrives.

While there are still a large number evacuation structures that need to be built to provide high ground for all of Washington’s coastal residents, both the Ocosta School and the Auntie Lee Tower in Tokeland, are not only effective structures themselves that will someday save lives in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone tsunami, but the process of building them provides lessons on how to build other vertical evacuation structures all over Washington.

“They are critical structures to save lives, but they take a lot of people working together to build them successfully,” Dixon said. “We want to make the process of designing and building one as simple as possible, but also make sure that critical steps aren’t missed along the way.”

To this end, Dixon and his team worked to create the Tsunami Vertical Evacuation Structure Manual and a couple of other tools, which you can read at

Dixon notes that we all learned of the effectiveness of tsunami evacuation structures from seeing the successful use of such structures in Japan, which withstood the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. He hopes that these lessons help not only other communities in Washington, but those in tsunami hazard areas all over the world.

All around the world, people face similar hazards to Washington state, particularly the seismic, volcanic and tsunami hazards situated around the Pacific Ocean. Working together, and learning from each other’s experiences, we can all make sure the people that live in these areas are more prepared. As our colleagues from New Zealand have quite aptly named it, when it comes to protecting our people from the impacts of these natural hazards, we’re all part of this “Fellowship of the Ring of Fire.”