LA PUSH — A yellow bus sits outside the Quileute Tribal School as a constant reminder of the danger lurking in the ocean.
The school and the rest of the village at La Push are in a tsunami hazard zone that will be leveled when the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake sends 40-foot wave crashing into shore within 10 to 15 minutes, experts say.
While the school bus is positioned to move the 72 students to higher ground at a moment’s notice, many believe that La Push Road — the only route in and out of the village — will be impassible after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake.
“We could lose the entire village,” Quileute Tribal School Superintendent Mark Jacobson said in a Wednesday interview in his office overlooking the surf.
“I could lose all the students and staff, and I just don’t want to see that happen. I want to be on high ground.”
The Quileute Tribe has been preparing for Cascadia and other natural disasters with its Move to Higher Ground project, a decades-old effort to relocate infrastructure to a 275-acre site above the existing village.
Tree harvesting has begun at the future site of a new school about 250 feet above sea level between the A-Ka-Lat Center and the Third Beach trailhead on the west side of La Push Road.
“Moving the Quileute Tribal School to higher ground away from the mouth of the river and the ocean is an important step in ensuring the future of the Quileute people for generations to come,” Quileute Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Naomi Jacobson said.
The 60,000-square-foot, kindergarten-to-12th-grade school will be the first structure built on higher ground.
The federally funded facility will have athletic fields, a regulation-sized gymnasium, a cafeteria, a music room, a performing arts stage and dedicated space for language and cultural classes and vocational programming.
“The children are our most precious resource for future leadership, and we all need to look after them in the right way, and moving the school to higher ground is part of the process in securing their future,” said Quileute Tribal Council member James Jackson Sr.
Federal legislation that passed in 2012 transferred 785 acres of former Olympic National Park land, including the higher ground site, back to the tribe.
The legislation, which ended a 50-year-old boundary dispute with the park, was sponsored by former U.S. Rep Norm Dicks and backed by U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Patty Murray, D-Seattle.
Susan Devine, who was hired as project manager in 2014, said the tribe’s top priorities for higher ground have always been the school, the elders and long-term housing.
“The lower village will remain,” Devine added in a Wednesday interview.
“The lower village is the heart of the community. That doesn’t change. But safety and preservation of the village, of the people and of the culture is requiring these other uses up on higher ground.”
Devine displayed a land-use master plan depicting a school campus, community services campus with an elders center, government services campus and housing at the project site.
“There’s not going to be a rush of everything happening,” Devine said.
“This is a long-term, thoughtful plan that will evolve over time.”
The new Quileute Tribal School will be funded with a No Child Left Behind grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Seventy-eight schools were eligible for the grant. Of the 53 that applied, 10 were selected for preliminary planning. The Quileute Tribal School was one of two selected for design and construction, officials said.
The total cost of the school will not be known until it is fully designed, Devine said.
Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in the late summer or fall of 2018.
“I’m telling students that if everything goes right, our first graduating class [in the new school] will probably be the class of 2020,” Jacobson said.
Students have offered ideas for preliminary design concepts and will continue to have an active role in the project.
When asked if the students are looking forward to the move, Jacobson said: “Everybody from sophomores on down.”
“I think it’s so critical for student learning to move to a new building,” Jacobson said.
The 1992 existing school building and its adjacent portable units are between 15 and 25 feet above sea level and within earshot of the surf about 150 yards away.
Jacobson said the facilities are inadequate compared to most public schools. He noted a lack of a dedicated science lab and the recently achieved high-speed internet connection.
“We’ve made do with what we’ve had available,” Jacobson said.
“I think it’s a disservice that our students aren’t getting the same thing that all the public school students receive across the state.
“This time, they got equal to what others have.”
The new campus will be an anchor of the village on higher ground, Devine said.
“It was important to tribal councils that it be something that is prominently displayed in the higher ground because this land was fought for for a long time,” Devine said.
“It was important that it be seen and visible and centrally located within that.”
Tribal officials say the lower village is subject to flooding from winter storms and sea level rise.
One parent moved his children to the schools in Forks because of the tsunami threat, Jacobson said.
“While it’s beautiful [at La Push], you still have that issue of any minute, any day, any year, it could all be gone,” Jacobson said.
Devine recalled the tsunamis that struck the Indian Ocean in 2004 and Japan in 2011, both of which were caused by subduction zone earthquakes on plate boundaries similar to Cascadia.
The last major Cascadia quake occurred Jan. 26, 1700.
“Nobody in Japan and nobody in Indonesia thought on the day that those happened that something would be happening,” Devine said.
“I cannot be responsible for not doing everything in my power to not have us in that position.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].