House Science Committee Reviews Administration's Tsunami Warning Plan

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Publication date: 
31 January 2005

The difficulties of implementing a tested technology to warn of an infrequent but catastrophic natural disaster were reviewed last week at a hearing of the House Science Committee. While the Bush Administration's proposal to deploy a greatly expanded array of buoys to detect tsunamis received positive marks, expect Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) to correct what he called a deficiency in the Administration's proposal when the Science Committee drafts its bill.

A central message of this two-hour hearing on January 26 was that protecting the American public will require more than just the installation of more tsunami detection buoys. John Orcutt, President of the American Geophysical Union, testified about the importance of educating populations at risk about tsunami and what action to take when a warning is issued. Equally important, he said, was the commitment to maintain these buoys and associated equipment, an expense that within three or years will equal the initial cost of deployment.

The hearing was held a month after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami to review the Administration's two-year $37.5 million proposal to deploy 32 new deep ocean buoys, improve the seismic network, and expand community tsunami education preparedness programs. NOAA's current budget for tsunami programs is $10.3 million. USGS would also receive funding under this initiative. Joining Orcutt at the witness table were USGS Director Charles "Chip" Groat; National Weather Service Director Gen. David L. Johnson; Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of the Columbia [University] Center for Hazards and Risk Research; and Jay Wilson, coordinator of Earthquake and Tsunami Programs of Oregon Energy Management.

Committee members generally spoke with one voice during this hearing. All were supportive of the Administration's proposal to deploy additional buoys in the Pacific, and to install them in the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea for the first time. There was concern, however, that a more comprehensive plan is needed to educate populations-at-risk about tsunami and how to respond to a warning. The Administration plan would allocate $1.5 million for community innundation mapping and education outreach, to which Boehlert asked, "Does that pass the test of adequacy...$1.5 million in this town is tip money." Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) seemed to be speaking for the committee when he said in his opening statement, "if we are going to do it, we should do it right." Gordon also sought assurances that money would not be diverted from other natural disaster warning systems. Also discussed was the need for greater funding of the National Science Foundation's Global Seismic Network.

The lead witness at this hearing was Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) who discussed concern some might have about increasing federal spending for a tsunami in America that might not occur for decades. Inslee compared tsunami risk to the risk of a terrorist act, and said that an expanded tsunmai warning system would be a wise investment. USGS Director Groat testified that there is a 10-14% chance that Oregon could be hit by a tsunami comparable to that in the Indian Ocean within the next fifty years, and said "we do face significant risk." Wilson discussed some of the steps Oregon has taken to make several communities "Tsunami-Ready," which involves innundation mapping, evacuation planning, and very importantly, sustaining education efforts to at-risk populations to create what he called a "culture of awareness." Oregon is at risk from tsunami that would strike with very little warning – perhaps as little as 10 minutes. Lerner-Lam called for local agencies at all levels to be more involved in the development of warning programs.

The Senate Commerce Committee will holding a hearing on tsunami preparedness legislation on Wednesday.