The disaster waiting to happen at the Northwest Detention Center

Tsunami hazard signs line the West Coast of the US. (Photo from Flickr by Daniel Hoherd)
Tsunami hazard signs line the West Coast of the US. (Photo from Flickr by Daniel Hoherd)

A guard sits, bored in an office at the Northwest Detention Center. It’s 3a.m. and most of the 1500 immigrant detainees held at the facility are sleeping. He scrolls through photos on Facebook, debating the pros (biceps) and cons (angry wife) of hitting the gym after work.

A siren pierces the air.

“Woooo, woooo!” Possibly an alarm. Maybe a fire truck. He sits up straighter in his chair, turns his head slowly, straining to discern the source of the sound.

A voice speaks from everywhere and nowhere, maybe the heavens. It’s calm, like the dispatch voice on the police scanner.

“A tsunami is coming. Get to high ground, I repeat, a tsunami is coming. Get to high ground.”

He takes a deep breath. There’s a plan for this, filed away inside of a binder somewhere. He has eight minutes to get everyone out of the building and to high ground.

The last thing any of us really want to do is spend time worrying about unlikely catastrophic events. But, earthquakes and tsunamis have happened here in the Northwest many times before, and they will happen again. When the next tsunami strikes, the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) — home to as many as 1575 immigrant detainees on any given day — will fill with as much as two meters of water in less than eight minutes.

The NWDC sits on an area called the Tacoma Tideflats, just below downtown, and alongside the Port of Tacoma. It’s adjacent to an EPA Superfund clean up site referred to as the “Tar Pits,” near where the Puyallup River Delta meets the Thea Foss waterway.

The area is prone to a smorgasbord of disasters, both natural and manmade: Giant underground tanks hold chemicals like benzene and chlorine, toxic byproducts from the site’s days as a gas refinery. Train cars filled with oil rumble by. The ground on which the facility sits is made of fill material likely to liquefy in an earthquake. Evidence shows that volcanic lahars have flowed through here in past eruptions of Mount Rainier.

And then there’s the tsunami danger.

The speed with which water could cover the detention center wasn’t clear when the NWDC opened in 2004. It wasn’t known until a study published by the Washington Division of Geology and Earth Resources and the NOAA Center for Tsunami Research in 2009 alerted the Port of Tacoma to some of the specific concerns.

A model showing inundation by a tsunami that would be generated by an 7.3 earthquake on the Seattle fault, which could put the Northwest Detention Center under more than six feet of water. (Map from NOAA and the Washington Dept. of Natural Resources, edited to show NWDC location)
A model showing inundation by a tsunami that would be generated by an 7.3 earthquake on the Seattle fault, which could put the Northwest Detention Center under more than six feet of water. (Map from NOAA and the Washington Dept. of Natural Resources, edited to show NWDC location)

An earthquake generates a tsunami by lifting the seafloor, uplifting a water column which collapses into a tsunami. Tsunamis can also be generated by earthquake induced landslides. Occasionally, rocks plunge into the ocean from cliffs and a tsunami rises up in response.

Timothy Walsh, a scientist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources says it’s difficult to say what magnitude of quake would herald disaster. There are a number of factors involved and just running a single scenario can take their computer an entire day. The team of researchers ran one simulation of a 7.3 magnitude quake along the Seattle fault line, similar to a quake that occurred about 1,000 years ago. This simulation put many areas of the Tideflats, including the NWDC, under more than six feet of water.

Walsh can say for sure that the area isn’t ready.

“The infrastructure to evacuate the port workers isn’t there at all,” said Walsh. The same goes for the immigrant detainees, the only actual residents living on the mostly industrial Tideflats.

“Everything that was down there was down there before we built this tsunami map,” explained Walsh.

Since realizing the inundation risk the Port of Tacoma has installed five sirens, augmented by two mobile sirens in the Tideflats, said Port of Tacoma Communications Director Tara Mattina. Tacoma is working on other warning systems like text message warnings, but they’re not in place yet.

“If you’re down in the Tideflats you most assuredly certainly wouldn’t have enough time on foot to get to high ground,” said Walsh. Damage to transit infrastructure would likely make it impossible to exit the area by vehicle.

“If you kept a mountain bike handy, you could maybe use that,” said Walsh.

Walsh says the best plan for port workers is to congregate on top of structures that will remain above the water. The port is looking into options like tsunami towers and educating workers on vertical evacuation.

In 1964 a tsunami hit Crescent City, California, killing 12 and destroying 30 city blocks. Since then, the city has implemented an evacuation plan that has lessened the human impacts of recent tsunamis. (Photo from Flickr by David Berry)
In 1964 a tsunami hit Crescent City, California, killing 12 and destroying 30 city blocks. Since then, the city has implemented an evacuation plan that has lessened the human impacts of recent tsunamis. (Photo from Flickr by David Berry)

But what about the immigrant detainees held at the NWDC?

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Public Affairs Officer Andrew Muñoz, the GEO Group (the private corporation that run the facility) maintains contingency plans for an evacuation. The plans are deemed “law enforcement sensitive,” though, so they aren’t available for inspection by civilians.

Even the Tacoma Fire Department (TFD), who will likely play a huge role in any future evacuation, doesn’t have a copy.

We don’t have a copy of a plan, but they are required to have one,” said TFD spokesman Joe Meineke. “For us this really would be a disaster response, there are hundreds of businesses in the tide flats area that would need to be evacuated.”

Evacuation protocol is mentioned briefly in a May 15, 2014 agreement titled the “Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Tacoma and The GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Center

“In the event of a mass evacuation, all transportation vehicles should arrive equipped with full set of restraints, handcuffs, belly chains and leg irons to appropriately restrain all residents being transported.”

That sounds serious. And time consuming.

Leg irons and belly chains also seem out of place given the fact that the NWDC is a civil detention center that houses people accused of being in the country without permission. A few of the detainees are transferred to NWDC after serving a sentence for a criminal offense. But the majority are there following minor brushes with the authorities during which their lack of documentation is discovered — a traffic stop, for example.

All are being held at the NWDC as civil detainees, not serving time for crimes, so the idea that keeping them restrained would take precedence over getting them to safety during a life-threatening emergency is troubling.

Facility design, available transportation and available space to move inmates determine how smoothly and quickly an evacuation goes, said National Sheriff’s Association Director of Operations Fred Wilson. His group offers a course on prison evacuation because planning and practicing often make the difference when it comes time to evacuate.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an unknown number of inmates at the New Orleans Parish Prison drowned after staff fled the flooding building.

Without access to the plans, we can’t say for sure how safe the detainees are in the event of a tsunami or other disaster.

It’s theoretically possible that NWDC could have a system in place involving evacuation to the rooftop to ride out the wave. But without practicing such a plan it seems unlikely they’d be able to kick it into gear in eight minutes, and no inmates or activists monitoring the facility have ever seen such a drill take place.

Without practice it’s hard to imagine guards not opting to just head for the hills and save their own lives when disaster strikes. That’s what happened in New Orleans.


  1. Thanks very much for addressing this issue which the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, State of WA and its representatives (notably Congressman Adam Smith) choose to avoid by denying all responsibility (even after their assistance to bring the place here) instead deferring to the Feds… yet the GEO contract requires an emergency plan you'd think all parties would want to ensure was workable and in-place.

    Even though the WA DOG/NOAA tsunami study wasn't published till 2009, the county still had restrictions against housing, hospitals, hotels and prisons in this area (essentially any facility housing humans) due to the known lahar path. While the city continues to deny NWDC is a "prison" (Mayor Strickland semantics) I believe the County Auditor taxes it as such… and, regardless, there are people trapped there, without criminal conviction, who don't deserve to be sentenced to whatever the result of this unpreparedness will deliver.

    1. If they don't want to be there they need to take their removal order and go… Problem solved…

      If you can't verify the plan or the security why write this piece. It seems more of a rant of unfounded and biased hatred.

  2. If a tsunami is on the way and they only have eight minutes to get everyone above 6.5 feet (~2 meters) where the water would be, it seems like the logical move would be to get the detainees up to the second floor balcony area that all of the housing areas in that facility contain (except in the case of one part of the building which actually has a full, proper, second floor). Yes, it would be uncomfortable for a little while, but it would be trivial to get the detainees out of bed and up to floor space well above the water line which they already have access to. Disaster, sure, but nobody's life is at risk in that building from a tsunami at 2 meters. I do not work for GEO nor ICE and do not speak for them, but I have been inside of the facility before.

    1. Responsible people think responsibly.

      I like the idea of the balconies's being an immediate answer I had not thought of for this specific scenario. Someone is thinking and similar great ideas would emerge if some form of public input was sought. There are other complicating factors which magnify the impact of placing an "Essential Public Facility" in a geographically sensitive area. This is not the place for humans to be held. For those that have never been inside (I was inside many times to include the buffet in POD A for the "Grand Opening") here is a link to a picture of the 4.5 ' balcony these mothers, daughters, and wives would hope for their survival:×466.jpg

  3. Tim,
    Thank you for your input. I recommend that you send this article to the Tacoma New Tribune to educate the Public on this Detention Center and its implication in time of disaster, be it an earthquake, tsunami or fire. It is time to close the Tacoma Detention Center.
    Why is Tacoma City Council silent with this information? And when will the Citizens of Tacoma have an opportunity to have input on this decision? How does the City of Tacoma and Pierce County benefit from this decision?

    1. Sister Murphy,

      The TNT, the Tacoma City Council as well as Pierce County Council avoid any open discussion about the place. The Mayor shows the general uniformed and disingenuous approach to the issue here on BBC:

      A failure of government and a failure of leadership for someone so wanting Tacoma to be a welcoming place for immigrants (and their money). With GEO poised to win a new ten-year contract worth over $600 million, there must be and should be some hearings and discussions in a public forum with accountable officials providing answers and solutions.

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