The South Beach communities of Washington’s outer Pacific coast lie in a changeable and sometimes dangerous landscape of sea and shore. South Beach is a remote place that has long depended on the active engagement of its people to protect community health and safety. It faces and depends on the sea, and its culture has been shaped by the need to respond to the sea’s perils.
At its northern end lies the town of Westport, with its harbor and Coast Guard station. Westport owes its existence to the need for safe navigation, growing up around its lighthouse, its jetty, and its lifesaving station. It is a place defined by the physical structures and cultures of marine safety, of sheltering, protection, and rescue, now concentrated in its Coast Guard Station and its identity as a Coast Guard City.
At South Beach’s southern end, at the village of Tokeland, lies the most rapidly eroding coastline in the United States, susceptible historically to constant reshaping by the sea and requiring vigilance. An important lighthouse, the Willapa Bay Light, once stood there, its site now lost to the sea and submerged in 80 feet of water.
And near Tokeland is Shoalwater Bay and the tribal lands of the Shoalwater Bay people. They have lived at South Beach long before it was so named and are now focused on strategies for safety and survival should sea-level rise and tsunami come. The threats they have faced most recently have not come from the sea at all, but have had to do with preserving the basic health and well-being of their people. They have responded with energy and strength, and now, with all of South Beach, are focused on what it means to live beside an ocean that could take the land where they live and that threatens the people who live there.
A report by the US Geological Survey makes plain that as near in time as a generation from now, the threat of tsunami, caused by Coastal Subduction Zone-related earthquakes, is significant for communities facing the open ocean on Washington’s coasts.1“Variations in Community Exposure and Sensitivity to Tsunami Hazards on the Open- Ocean and Strait of Juan de Fuca Coasts of Washington (USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5004). That includes South Beach. What is less well understood is the capacity of communities to respond to tsunami events. The question is one of readiness and resilience: whether a community in harm’s way is able and willing to produce the planning, the response in the moment, and the recovery afterwards, on which its future life might depend.2The USGS has invited research on the question of community resilience. Id. We cannot predict those things, but we can offer evidence from South Beach and from its history of response and resilience that show the commitment of its people to each other and their skillfulness in living in their home place.