A Disaster the Size of Multiple Katrinas Is Building Off Washington’s Coast
The Coast Guard is the first line of defense against a massive tsunami. Will it also be an early victim?
By ERIC SCIGLIANO
On the north shore of Washington’s wild Olympic Peninsula, a scimitar-shaped sandspit called Ediz Hook arcs for three miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At its tip, between snowy mountains to the south and Vancouver Island to the north, sits what may be the nation’s most scenically sited military installation — and its most vulnerable.
U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles is the very first of first responders when something goes wrong, as it often does, on the state’s tangled straits and inlets and stormy outer coast and, sometimes, on the peaks and bluffs overlooking them. The station’s three MH-65 Dolphin helicopters are the only aircraft the Coast Guard, America’s frontline coastal defense and search-and-rescue service, bases along Washington’s deeply crenulated 3,026-mile coastline. In 2021, they undertook 195 search-and-rescue missions. Ediz Hook is also home base for four seagoing cutters, 87 to 110 feet long, and one 210-foot medium-endurance cutter, which are often away patrolling for drug smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing, oil spills and other security and environmental threats. Two 29-foot and two 45-foot short-range response boats deal with local emergencies; they joined the choppers on 16 rescue missions in 2021 and responded on their own in 23 others.
But those exploits are just a warm-up for the disaster to come. Someday — next week, next year, maybe next century — a sudden and deadly marine shock will strike the Northwest coast: what locals call the Big One, a circa 9.0-magnitude offshore earthquake generating tsunami surges reaching 60 feet high or more. Preparations for this threat have especially lagged in Washington, says state seismologist Harold Tobin, who chairs the University of Washington’s seismology and geohazards program and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network: “Oregon, California and British Columbia have all taken it more seriously.”