KLIPSAN, Wash. — Jeanne Johnson originally thought that moving to the beach was a dream best left for retirement. The child of a Navy man, she grew up moving from seaport to seaport.
“I love the ocean. It makes me feel good,” she said.
People no longer have to live where they work anymore. And Johnson, a director of business development at Microsoft, was tired of living so far from the water.
“I have a job where I can work from anywhere, which is an incredible blessing,” she said over coffee at her new home in a gated Klipsan, Washington, neighborhood. “So where would you live if you could live anywhere? It certainly wasn’t where I was.”
But as soon as Johnson started looking at the Columbia-Pacific region, the first thing that came out of her friends’ mouths was the word “tsunami.” So she balanced the romantic draw of the ocean with the pragmatism of a planner and sought out the innovative Survival Capsule.
A new start
Johnson — who survived a second bout with cancer last year — prides herself on her thoroughness, and weighed a number of factors when choosing where to live.
“I really wanted the Pacific Ocean. I wanted good weather most of the time. I really wanted a low cost of living. You build your wish list,” she explained.
She had originally settled on Manta, Ecuador, an oceanfront city with a European vibe and a few thousand American expatriates. But fate had other plans — as she was getting ready to move there last spring, Ecuador suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 700 people.
“All of their construction is concrete, and it crumbled,” she said.
It was time to look for another option. But as she began to look, she also began dating a man from Astoria.
“I met the fella and started coming down here on weekends and in the summer, and it’s incredible. This coastline is everything you would want,” Johnson said. “The people are so friendly and it felt a lot like small-town America again. And I was really glad to get back to that.”
Once she decided that this is where she wanted to be, she had to give some consideration to possible outcomes.
“Probably more consideration than anyone probably would,” said Johnson, who worked as a pandemic planner and with disaster recovery groups earlier in her career.
“All I do is think about disasters. And that’s what I was paid to do for the majority of my career.”
Johnson explained how she had done nuclear bomb drills when she was a kid. When she married, she moved to Kansas, where every spring there are tornadoes. Her father went on to retire in New Orleans, where she lived through three hurricanes.
“You just start to think of those things. Not that it is going to happen, but if it does, you’re ready.”
“I really wanted to be at like 200 feet elevation in Sahalee (the hillside neighborhood in Ilwaco). Everyone wants the house that is out of reach of the tsunami.”
Johnson said her friends’ warned her about tsunamis.
“Three hundred years since the last tsunami. The (Cascadia Subduction Zone) is liable to go,” Johnson recalled. “There is geological proof that it goes every 300 years. We’re overdue. So you really don’t want to be down low.”
But she said romanticism drew her to the waterside.
“But I thought, you know, I want to hear the waves. I want to get to the beach (from her home). I know up high is cool, but why wouldn’t I just have a shelter like I did (in Kansas)?”
And with this in mind, she began to investigate the possibilities. She soon found that an underground shelter wasn’t practical on the giant sand bar that is the peninsula.
“I started to do some online research and found a lot of options. There were hard plastic containers you can get in. And then I found information on the NASA competition.”
In 2011, a former Boeing engineer, Julian Sharpe, was featured in the top 10 of the NASA Create the Future contest. His design for a capsule that could withstand a tsunami intrigued Johnson.
“I’m very scientific in my job, so I started to really get into the details of his design. It’s fantastic. It takes care of all the fears you would have, including fire. That’s the one that nobody else covers.”
Johnson explained how busted propane tanks would leave pools of gas floating on the water’s surface, easily ignitable.
“Even if you could hold onto something in the water. Even if you were in a boat. The fire would kill you.”
She said the things she wanted protection from were crushing, drowning, cold and fire. Most tsunami experts suggest that people will only have around 20 minutes to evacuate before a tsunami hits. Johnson knew that she didn’t want to take her chances on the road, and so looked for something else she could do to save herself in that amount of time.
“There’s no way you could A — Outrun it. Or B — Deal with the panic on the peninsula,” Johnson said when asked why she was deciding to stay at home, a short distance from the beach, rather than running for her life if the tsunami siren went off.
She began calling manufacturers of various tsunami survival devices, including the one produced by the company that Sharpe founded in Mukilteo, Washington, called Survival Capsule, LLC.
“I do business development, and I’m curious about it. I’ve started up companies in my youth. I was curious how his business was going. It’s a very new idea — and a controversial one.”
Sharpe told her that they had been mostly doing work in Japan. He also told her that the company had been working with Dr. Eddie Bernard, the director of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Oceanographic Research Laboratories, since 1983. Bernard is also considered one of the foremost experts on tsunamis in the U.S.
“I felt like I was making a really good choice. But then (Sharpe) said they weren’t selling in the United States yet.”
Sharpe explained to her that the need was greater in Japan and so they had yet to begin sales in the U.S.
“People in the U.S. may not be in greater peril, however, peril may exist,” Johnson said. “I kind of pushed him a little bit to sell in the United States now, instead of later.”
And that’s how Johnson became the first person in the U.S. to purchase a Survival Capsule. The 300-pound spherical pod, which was delivered late last week, is similar in terms of size and interior room to the Gemini space capsules. The capsule also features an aircraft-style door that seals when closed.
“I got the two-person capsule, and it’s really small,” she said. A basic two-person capsule costs $13,500 and the four-person model sells for $17,500. Six, eight and 10-person models also are available.
Johnson was featured in a TV news piece by KING 5 Seattle last week, and she noted that many people did not have very encouraging comments on the story.
“A lot of people said, ‘Looks like a coffin to me! Looks like you’ll die in it. Good luck lady, looks like you’re going to die in the capsule,’” she recalled. “Maybe I will, but I’m guaranteed to die otherwise. I’m 18 minutes from high ground if no one is in my way.”
And while the capsule is small, it has room for a variety of items. Johnson said she’ll have a bike helmet, Mustang life preservers, flares, 40-days worth of freeze-dried camping food and water bladders inside hers. Dr. Bernard suggests that there would be a four-hour window in which the tsunami’s flooding would continue to take place.
Johnson said she will also have the ability to tether her capsule via a 100-foot steel cable connected to a concrete plug in the ground outside her house, essentially turning her into a buoy. And in the event that the water becomes deeper than 100 feet, the sheer pin on the cable will break, allowing the pod to float freely. Inside, the seats feature a four-point harness. The water bladders, when full, help create ballast and keep it floating upright. It has a ceramic lining to help protect from heat and cold. Larger models of the pod can also feature two doors and dry powder toilets.
You gotta die somehow
There are many “what-if’s” when it comes to the Survival Capsule. What if it breaks its tether and floats out to sea after the tsunami subsides? (The capsule features a GPS beacon.) What if the door is blocked by debris? (Johnson said she has a tool to bust out the small portholes and launch flares). What if the hatch starts to leak? (She plans to have multiple air tanks and masks inside).
“You know, people are saying, ‘Oh great, you’re under a debris pile.’ But I’m alive. That’s a good problem to have I guess,” she said. “At least I’ve survived. I’m still safer in there than I would be outside.”
So despite knowing more than most people about tsunamis, knowing the various frightening outcomes, knowing the chances of survival, why is Johnson still willing to take the chance?
“People asked me that when I still lived in New Orleans,” she said. “Because of all the great things that New Orleans has to offer every other day.”
She said for her, it’s a similar equation here.
“I lived in tornado alley (in Kansas), where we had 200 tornadoes every spring. I’ve hit 15 deer with a car in my lifetime. Why on earth would you want to live in Seattle where Mount Rainier could blow and that glacier could melt and everybody would drown?
“I’m more likely to be killed on I-405 by a kid on a cellphone than I am to be killed in a tsunami here.”