Congressional Panel Backs Tsunami Warning System

As Trump's budget is a looming threat for many crucial agencies and services, a congressional panel has moved to protect a global tsunami detection system.

by Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times / July 18, 2017
Infographic on tsunami sensors. TNS/Los Angeles Times 2017

(TNS) -- A congressional panel has voted to continue funding a global tsunami detection system that gives U.S. officials an accurate forecast of when and how big floodwaters will arrive from a distant earthquake.

A House of Representatives’ appropriations subcommittee voted last week to reject a provision in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that would have ended funding of the U.S. deep-ocean tsunami sensor network.

Ending funding for the $12 million would have eventually shut it down, as batteries for the system’s 39 stations, located on sea floors around the world, would run out of power in about two years.

The deep-ocean tsunami sensing system was built after a false tsunami alert in 1986 caused a costly, unneeded evacuation of Honolulu’s famed tourist district, Waikiki, trapping cars in the evacuation zone and costing the state tens of millions of dollars.

The system was modernized and expanded to its latest incarnation after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 235,000 people, underscored the dangers of an inadequate tsunami warning system.

No deep-ocean sensors existed in the Indian Ocean when that tsunami struck, and the disaster led President George W. Bush and Congress to back the creation of a U.S.-led global tsunami sensing system, which increased the number of deep-ocean sensors operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from six to 39. There are also now 21 other sensors operated by eight other nations.

The panel also rejected a proposed reduction in funding for the U.S. tsunami warning centers. The Trump administration suggested cutting the number of tsunami warning centers from two to one and slash staffing from 40 full-time employees to 15 — saving $11 million.

“The committee does not adopt the proposed reduction for the Tsunami Warning Centers … or the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoys,” a subcommittee report said.

Congressional aides said the subcommittee also rejected a proposal to end $6 million in grants given out to states to reduce tsunami hazards, which fund emergency drills and the drawing of flood maps and evacuation plans.

A document explaining the Trump administration’s plan acknowledged that “tough choices” were made to reduce funding, but “is necessary as we move toward a more efficient government that re-focuses on national security and core government functions.”

The tsunami sensing system operates on a simple premise: recording the tsunami as it races through the deep ocean, before it strikes the shore.

Officials long ago realized that simply relying on how big an earthquake is in the ocean cannot accurately predict a tsunami. Sometimes, big earthquakes produce no tsunami, and at other times, a moderate temblor might conjure up a tsunami surprise.

The solution developed by NOAA scientists was to send ships into the deep ocean and drop sensors that would sink to the sea floor, according to Eddie Bernard, a former director of the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and a key architect of the system. The sensors would detect the tsunami as it rushed through, and then send signals to a connected floating buoy that would send data to the warning centers by satellite.

The budget proposal will next be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee, and eventually the full House of Representatives and the Senate will weigh in before a budget is sent to Trump. The next budget year begins Oct. 1.

©2017 Los Angeles Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.