South Beach, Washington

Health and Coastal Perils

Gregory Hicks


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.1Variations 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.

The South Beach communities have practices and traditions of caring and response that can be drawn on in planning for and responding to existential threats to health and safety, including tsunami. There are two particularly striking institutions that define South Beach and that might be rallying points in crafting response to tsunami and other crises of health and safety. The first is the tradition of ocean rescue, first seen in nineteenth-century lifesaving services and still a vivid and active part of the culture of South Beach. The second is the insistence by the Shoalwater Bay people on their own survival. Their investments in healthcare, and more recently in tsunami warning and response, are models of adaptation and resilience-in-place. Thus, the community culture of South Beach that is formed through acts of rescue, sharing, and solidarity is the focus of the narrative that follows.

Left: The shipwrecked lumber steamer Trinidad. Right: The Trinidad rescue team, which saved 21 men off the ship. Photographs courtesy of the Westport Maritime Museum and Westport South Beach Historical Society

The lifesaving tradition of a coastwise community

The tools and culture of ocean rescue are significant community resources of South Beach. They are parts of the self-definition of people and place. The Coast Guard, the former United States Life-Saving Service, the seamen’s memorials at Westport and elsewhere along the coast, lie at the heart of a community that faces the sea and ventures into the sea.

Left: The storm-wracked Lumber Schooner Trinidad, as captured by the incoming life-saving crew at the north spit of Willapa Bay. Middle: Life-saving station surfmen at Westport, Grays Harbor County, Washington. Right: The Yorkmar vessel grounded south of the entrance to Grays Harbor, 1953. Photograph courtesy of the Westport South Beach Historical Society

“We had the great storms—especially the spring storms—associated with loss of life, with connection, and with memorial. Families connected because of remarriages due to lost spouses caused by the storms. People connected through storm and disaster.”

— John Shaw, executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society, in an October 2020 interview

Danger is real. South Beach is a place that requires competence and energy, and where expectations of being able to rely on neighbors run strong in the maritime community. The first settlement of Westport occurred exactly because of the establishment of a lighthouse and the building of a jetty that made navigation and commerce possible on a difficult part of the Washington coast. There would have been no fishing or timber industries there without the commitment to navigation safety.

The coming of the United States Life-Saving Service was an essential part of the formation of South Beach community culture. The constant presence of the boat crews at their launch stations or on the water, training and exercising, and made up of locals and newcomers recruited to the service, defined early Westport and South Beach. The lifeboat men were always preparing for a possible call-out, and their readiness to help with onshore emergencies as well kept them visible and integrated into the community. They were neighbors. Famous rescues and notable tragedies reinforced the importance of their work. South Beach from Tokeland to Westport came to be understood as a place with a particular identity exactly because it was made up of smaller locales connected along the oceanfront by skills and practices of rescue and mutual help.

A search and rescue operation in Westhaven State Park, Westport. Credit: Eirik Johnson

That culture, and the practices and institutions that formed it, are a major part of South Beach’s identity to this day. It is an identify seen in the close collaborations between marine and onshore emergency rescue services, and in the decision by South Beach residents to raise local taxes to include a vertical tsunami evacuation shelter in the new Ocosta High School to protect local young people—the first such structure of its kind in the United States. It happened because local people, knowing the ocean and the risks of living on its shore, thought it important.

Left: Tsunami siren tower. Middle: Coastguard watch tower. Right: Grays Harbor Lighthouse. Credit: Eirik Johnson

“Nobody came in from the outside requiring Ocosta to erect the first modern engineered vertical evacuation tower anywhere in the United States. It happened purely because local people thought it important. It’s the modern version of the call-outs of an earlier time: the need to respond. The commitment shown facing shipwrecks is now shown in taking steps to protect the kids.”

— John Shaw, executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society, in an October 2020 Interview

The physical landscape of South Beach and its built environment are reflections of institutional commitments to safety and survival. Those are commitments made both by government and by citizens. They include life-saving stations, watch towers, and now tsunami warning sirens and refuges. The physical, social, and institutional landscapes converge and re-enforce each other, and the acts of organizing, building, using, and living among the tools and skills of survival re-make the community, expressing values and strengthening mutual commitment.

The long, ocean-facing coastline from Tokeland to Westport becomes a different place, and its neighbors become different people to each other, as they act together and live in a landscape they have made through investments in safety and in caring. Acts remake reality.

“Once upon a time in Westport, with strength and determination, the town was able to regrow from a tsunami. They devised a water airport for supplies while the bridges were being rebuilt. Some people moved up on the bluffs to escape the congestion. They built high-rises to house people. Our biggest asset is the fishing industry and it was not affected. The oyster beds moved inland as the land receded, the docks are still there, much of our tourism is based on deep sea fishing and we would still have that. We would just need to move and shift a bit and I believe we would be fine. This town is strong, we are survivors, it’s a close-knit community, and we would be strong in the face of adversity.”

— 2018 Coastal Resilience Workshop participant

Ocosta High School, home to the first US Vertical Evacuation System, located in Westport, Washington. Credit: Eirik Johnson

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe demonstrates that a commitment to community health and healing is a critical foundation for community resilience.

Tribal lands anchor the Shoalwater Bay people, but the lands make sense as a foundation because of a commitment to a shared culture, and also a commitment to the health and strength of the people on the lands that are theirs. The struggle for strength and health has been very pointed at times, as during the 1990s, when there were difficulties with the birth of healthy children. The Shoalwater Bay people invested in understanding the crisis and in assuring the best prospects for expectant mothers and newborns. Similar investments were made to address other health needs within the community, including chemical dependency and diabetes. The result has been the revival of a culture of health through the Shoalwater Bay Tribe Wellness Center, which has brought and expanded access to care and kept that care close to the people. The work is grounded not only in modern medicine but also in a traditional understanding that true health requires a focus on the mind and spirit as well as the body and a focus also on the health of the community where the people live.3“Shoalwater Bay Tribe succeeds at bringing care to its people” (Washington State Health Care Authority). The work of the Shoalwater Bay people has resulted in important recognition through a Culture of Health prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. More importantly, it has resulted in the revival of a culture of mutual caring, connection, and effectiveness in protecting the Shoalwater Bay people.

Healthcare, for the Shoalwater Bay people, has also become a foundation for a broader strength, making possible effective response to other crises and challenges, including challenges presented by the ocean and its movement. The sciences of tsunami and of rising ocean levels predict that their historic home along the ocean shore is extremely vulnerable, even dangerous. The Shoalwater are now acting on the basis of that understanding to make their people safe, using the strength and confidence of having addressed a deep crisis in community health and wellbeing as a resource for success. They have built a tsunami warning siren in an area that serves tribal lands and their nearby neighbors, and they are building on higher ground the homes and structures they will need if ocean water levels rise, whether gradually or suddenly and catastrophically.

The Shoalwater Bay people, in their relation to their home place, show that community thriving, even at home and in a place where cultural connection is powerful, can require adaptation and active engagement. Change can be made in a way that is true to identity and that expresses who a people are. The actions of the Shoalwater Bay people to restore and preserve their health and safety show that threats of loss can lead to rediscovered connection between people, and to generosity of response for the good of all.

An Interview with Jamie Judkins, Member of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe

As we finalized our American Roundtable submission, we were honored to interview Jamie Judkins, a planner for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe and a Tribal Member herself, to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the tribe historically, now, and into the future. Interview by Gregory Hicks and Daniel Abramson, Friday, November 13, 2020.

Gregory Hicks (GH): Faced with pending sea-level rise, as well as the possibility of a future tsunami, the tribe has been considering developing a new center for tribal life on higher ground. Can you discuss what this means for the tribe in physical as well as emotional terms?

Jamie Judkins, Shoalwater Bay Tribe (JJ): For us it is important to be able to choose where we want to actually develop our community: trying to develop in a location that’s safer than where we’re at, which originally was just given to us through an executive order from the government. It was not a treaty; we don’t have any rights off-reservation. We’ve had to purchase all of the lands back around us so that we can try to create a safer location for ourselves. Our people would have different sites where we would migrate for seasonal purposes. We would go fishing, gather berries, and go elk hunting, and there were different areas that we would go to live temporarily while we were gathering and feeding our families. So when the US government and newcomers started implementing their own way of life, we slowly became limited on where we could find food. We couldn’t just pick up and move to the next location for the next season anymore. This has really affected our people. It’s really important for us to be able to choose where we’re going to be if we have to be there permanently, because we didn’t get a choice before.

GH: What are the things that are going into the choice? What matters? What do you want the place to be?

JJ: We want room to move around. The ability to live off the land is the biggest issue for us. We could go wherever we needed to go as long as it was within our territory, and our territory was vast. Now it’s not. There wasn’t a thoughtful decision behind that executive order. It was just, “Hey, they won’t leave, we might as well give it to them.” Today, though, there’s a lot more thoughtfulness behind a lot of the decisions being made. I feel like we’ve made amazing progress over the years, but there’s still a lot more work to do. Communication is key. If we want to try to live in harmony and protect our lands and adapt to the changing world around us, we can’t be so rigid.

GH: What does that mean to you as you think about this challenge of being situated in place, having a sense of being grounded and connected in the midst of this new ecology of things created by changes in the land and the arrival of newcomers that are part of the world now?

JJ: It’s really hard to try to be what we’re supposed to be according to the government. We were communal; we had a structure that worked for us. We had to adapt to this new governmental structure in order to survive on our land and to get the resources that were there to help us become like them, and thus leave ourselves behind, basically. Now we’ve been trying to bring ourselves back, because we’ve acknowledged that culture is health and our culture is our health. We have been stuck.

You know, this COVID is a perfect example, now that I’m thinking about it, and everyone’s experiencing it. It’s very similar to what happened with reservations: People were forced to stay within a certain boundary and told they couldn’t do their traditional activities that kept them healthy back in the day, that allowed them to sustain their own families. We were able to roam freely and do whatever we needed to do to be a part of society, and now suddenly we’re all having to adapt to this new way of life. People are experiencing reservation life! Reservations became rampant with alcoholism and drug abuse and just poor health altogether when our culture was taken from us and these boundaries were placed on us. Now, trying to bring that culture back, it’s helping a lot.

If you’ve ever attended a canoe journey, it teaches you a whole new way of life that is a cultural basis for living. I think everyone should probably experience something like that at least once in their lifetime. A lot of the families are more than happy to accommodate people who want to experience it and tag along, if they have room. I am a descendent of Chinook blood, and I go with our Chinook canoe family, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve gone three years now, but of course, due to COVID, this year they canceled, and they already canceled next year, which makes me so sad.

GH: As you think about the South Beach community and you go from Tokeland up to Westport, with all the newcomers and cranberry farms and all the rest—what does that feel like, you know, just as your neighborhood?

JJ: Well, we definitely want to have harmonious connections with the community around us. I hate to quote Spider Man, but “with great power comes great responsibility.” Knowing that we have those resources to help our own people and we can help other people, why not? We are all human, and everyone is at the same level of vulnerability. So if we can include others, we will. That tends to be our historical way of doing things anyways. Most all services we offer are open to the public, and we’re very small, so helping other people is actually helping us too.

Daniel Abramson (DA): Thinking again about the move to higher ground, how is the Tribe dealing with changes that have been done to the land you will be re-occupying? Is there something that can be done to make the forest healthier again than it is right now?

JJ: Yes, from my understanding, there were times when our people would set fires in the forest to get rid of the underbrush, so the animals could live there more easily, and we could get through the forest more easily as well. It would get rid of the old trees that were rotting. We want to manage the land in a responsible manner, and now we are starting to have the ability to do that type of work. We’ve had such a small reservation for so many years, and our topographical area is so steep on the hills, that we haven’t had to manage much in this manner. We have a lot of wetlands that are not able to be developed, so we’re very limited. Traditionally we had the waterfronts available to us for shellfish gathering, and we don’t really have any accessible waterfront available to us now, but we’re starting to get back into land management and doing it in a way that will support the life that depends upon it.

GH: For the families living now in the flat areas close to sea level, how do people see where they are at, and what that means in terms of opportunity and threats like sea level rise, earthquakes, and tsunamis?

JJ: Today, we have some elders in the tsunami and flood zones who feel, “This is where I’ve lived my entire life. I don’t want to move even up the hill. This is where my family has always been. This is where they are buried.” Although they don’t want to move, they still support others who would want to move uphill. If things were to change and there were a historic, huge disaster that happened in our area, I would love to see the new community uphill that will support life and keep our people safe. We’re developing a strategic plan at the moment, and we’ve just nailed down our first value statements. Next, we’re going to start focusing on goals and strategies and tactics. With that in mind as we move forward, safety is going to be a huge factor in that discussion, because in our value statements, we’re talking about wanting to keep our people healthy and safe, and become self-sustained. That includes the whole community, tribal and non-tribal. We want everyone to be safe.

DA: Given how people traditionally moved around seasonally, what was the kind of habitat that people had? What was the form of housing?

JJ: Traditionally, our housing had to be easy to rebuild. We used plank houses, with an opening in the top so the community could build a fire in the middle of the communal space. Meats and fish and herbs would be hanging inside the space and were being smoked by the fire within the building, and bedding was situated all around the edges where people could sleep and sit and have their meetings. It was a very large area. They traditionally had a round doorway to crawl through.

We recently constructed a new structure that we call the multipurpose building. It’s located up on the hillside and it’s right above the predicted tsunami zone if “the big one” hits. The building serves as our evacuation center. We designed it to be styled after a plank house. While it’s a modern building, it’s long and narrow like a traditional plank house, with some beautiful artwork at the [gable] end.

Somebody asked me once, “What is the difference when it comes to a Tribal Nation that’s able to move a whole community compared to a city?” We’re mostly family, and we’re all members of a tribe so we are able to make those decisions as a whole, whereas a city may have a city council but as a city resident, you are not required to stay there at all; you’re not required to come back and vote if you don’t live there. We’re a collective, and all of our land is not owned by tribal members individually; it’s all being held in trust for the tribe as a whole. Whereas a city is all divided by every individual who has their own property. I think the great thing about the relocation effort is that we have this opportunity in front of us to plan an entire community and consider every aspect of it before we start, even, and make sure we’re including our elders, our children, food security, and exercise. How can we gather and hunt in that community and be safe as well as feel safe, and how can we preserve everything around us in the meantime, while we’re doing all of this?

There are conversations about our forests. We want to preserve them as well as responsibly manage them, and, in the meantime, we’re creating a wetland mitigation bank down below. We’re returning the tidal lands back to their original state—they’ve been used as agricultural land for cows. We’re just trying to be good stewards. With the oyster beds and clam beds we purchased in the mid-‘90s, our Council has made it known that they do not want us to even try to use any kind of chemicals because Willapa Bay is known as one of the cleanest bays around and we want to keep it that way. So we just try to keep things as natural as possible and really cohabitate with our environment rather than move into it.

We are under pressure to make use of the shellfish beds, however, because we’re a food desert; we don’t supply any of our own foods, unless we go hunting. We have one commercial fisherman left; we don’t have anybody that does any large-scale fishing. So it’s a dying art and Earl [Davis, Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum Cultural Director] is trying to bring them back and to teach people the traditional way of fishing. That’s something that we’re working towards: food sovereignty.4Anna S. Antoniou, and Earl Davis, “Archaeology within an Indigenous-Rights Based Approach to Sustainability and Locally Sourced Foodways: A Case Study from the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe,” 2019.

We had that large storm back in 2007 that cut our community off from power, and from any access on the roads. There were trees down on both sides of the highway. We couldn’t get out and people couldn’t get in. We actually had the governor come out in a helicopter to check on us. Trucks couldn’t come in and bring food, and we realized that we are very alone out here when things like that happen. Ever since that storm we’ve really focused on food sovereignty and trained to provide something within, rather than everything coming from outside. Learning and practicing our culture is really what is going to keep us alive.

DA: What lessons has Shoalwater Bay Tribe taken from the experience of other tribes that have started to develop on higher ground, such as Quinault and Quileute?

JJ: We visited Quileute a while back and found that they have a new location for their school, and we’ve always thought it would be wonderful to have a school within our community. Right now, our children have to go up to Ocosta or down to Raymond or South Bend. COVID has really exposed the fact that we could stay safe if we had everything within our community. Now everyone’s working on Zoom. We don’t have to travel as much and we’re saving a lot more time. Everything’s right here. But you know, it’s exposed so many things about the education system. We don’t want our kids to leave the community. We don’t want them to be exposed to people that are out and about. It really makes me think of the historical stories about travelers coming into the area and bringing illnesses with them and taking out large groups of our people. We had no immunity to these things, and suddenly half our people are lost. This is exactly what we’re experiencing, except now we were ready for it. We were warned and we started putting practices in place to help protect everyone. Our children need to be protected. We also have a really good system of people that are checking on our elders and bringing them hot meals every day.

One great thing that’s come out of COVID for us: We’ve had a community garden for two or three years now, and it was a real struggle to coordinate providing food to our kitchen at the tribal center and our enterprises. They are now providing food on a regular basis! It’s been a really great thing for us in that aspect. Food sovereignty is moving forward!

Overlooking the Shoalwater Bay Reservation. Photograph courtesy of Dan Abramson

Towards a Future

An important part of the sense of place in South Beach is knowledge that the sea can impose extreme demands on the people who make their communities there. Part of that knowledge is that land’s relation to the sea is changing constantly, and that the land one stands on might be washed away. Thus, the threats of sea-level rise and even of tsunami-driven inundation exist for South Beach people within an understanding of what it means to live in a fluid, uncertain landscape.

That relationship to place can be an important source of strength, blunting the sense of invasion and outrage that the movements of land and sea might otherwise cause. The connection between land and sea is everywhere to be seen in South Beach, creating a basis for strong, shared understanding among residents, especially those who know the history of how South Beach arose as a community that is all about living with the sea and its perils.

An incoming storm, looming across Half Moon Bay towards Westport, Washington. Credit: Eirik Johnson

The importance of cultures of resilience cannot be overstated for a community facing a challenge as serious as tsunami. The development of strategies and techniques in the area of emergency response in a small community must not become captive of the fear that the disaster will inevitably overwhelm any capacity for effective action. The thought of catastrophic events can distort effective planning and action, whether by leading a community to attempt extreme levels of preparation based on worst-case scenarios or, on the other hand, by causing the community to feel that nothing can be done. A very different mindset is needed, one focused on a commitment to effective action using possible tools and available human resources, including planning and communication involving neighbors.

What this means is planning for action that is naturally adapted to place. Neighborhood units of intervention and help can operate in their immediate locales, but they can also interact with each other, producing a network of commitments and actions helpful to each other. The very fact of organizing such relationships would become a useful tool of response, establishing contacts between neighbors and creating foundations for sharing knowledge and for building mutual confidence and connection. Neighbors would learn how to reach each other, learn their localities better, including knowing the special needs and vulnerabilities of particular neighbors so as to help them or to guide professional responders.

Left: The original State Route 105 Culvert in North Cove, Washington. Right: Residence in Grays Harbor County, Westport, Washington. Credit: Eirik Johnson

“It’s a [an earthquake] heck of a way to be wakened out of a sound sleep. My grandmother was the only calm one in the room. There are some forces and influences we have no control over. I’m thankful for gatherings like this to prepare for these events. As a long-term member of the community, I’m delighted to see the number of people here, and thankful for the information brought forth to help us be calmer. Compared to last year, to set it up this way so each of us can share information. I think it’s better for preparedness, for us to be information persons for our neighbors.”

— 2018 Coastal Resilience Workshop participant

We began this article with the observation that the coastwise communities of South Beach have cultures of rescue that they can draw on in facing the perils that come from the ocean. Those are not only historical resources. They are the resources that communities have as a result of having built and maintained institutions focused on safety and well-being. South Beach is the product of those commitments, both in the setting of ocean rescue and in the re-making of strength by the Shoalwater Bay people. South Beach is a place of interventions, and activity and practical courage.

A community’s understanding of the adaptations needed to face a disaster should be grounded in realistic appraisals of risks. But the idea of adaptation should also reflect a community’s understanding of its own capacities and commitments and its sense of just how it wishes to face particular risks. In other words, a very important consideration will be how a community understands itself and wishes to go forward. That will involve knowing the best strengths of the community and how they can be marshalled and made effective.



Oyster farms along Willapa Bay Tidal Flats. Credit: Eirik Johnson

The author would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to this piece: John Shaw, executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society; Jamie Judkins, Shoalwater Bay Tribe; and Kate Papacosma, author of The World Inverted.


Gregory Hicks

is a professor in the University of Washington School of Law, where he teaches courses in property, water law, and public land and natural resources law. Hicks has served on the boards of a number of nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy and the Pacific Forest Trust. He has also participated in governmental advisory and oversight panels, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Water Law Advisory Panel of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.