Scientists Say Funding Cuts Threaten State’s Tsunami Preparedness

The federal government is proposing at least a million dollar reduction in funding for tsunami programs in Alaska.  The agency in charge says the cuts are necessary and won’t hurt the state’s tsunami preparedness, but some scientists and officials disagree.  They say the reduction in funding will weaken Alaska’s tsunami programs and leave the state’s coastal communities at risk.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA is proposing a $4.6 million reduction in funding for tsunami programs nationwide in the fiscal year 2013.  Most of those savings will come at the expense of a program that gives money to states and academic institutions for tsunami outreach, education, and research.

Roger Hansen is Alaska’s state seismologist and director of the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, which is one of the organizations that receives funding through the program.  He says it’s a mistake for NOAA to pull the plug now, just six years after Congress passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, a law co-authored by the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens that appropriated the initial funding.

“It’s imperative that we have this program continue because you don’t just put out a few signs and expect that solves your problem.  It’s an ongoing process of creating partnerships with local communities, emergency managers and the university, which is doing the science arm of this kind of work.”

But NOAA spokesperson Susan Buchanan says the program is no longer necessary.

“That program has been a great success.  It was sort of a ramping up.  We needed to get the models in place, we needed to get the inundation maps in place, and we needed to do a lot of education and outreach and since 2005 we’ve been very successful working with our partners at the state level to get our coastal communities better prepared for tsunamis.”

Hansen agrees that the program has been a success, but says the modeling and inundation mapping are nowhere near done.  In Alaska more than fifty communities are still waiting to be mapped.  And Hansen says the idea that a few years of training and education are enough is simply ludicrous.

“To say we’ve had a five-year program and everybody is safe now is very misleading.  It’s an ongoing process.”

Hansen adds that cuts to outreach and education will have the greatest impact in states like Alaska and Oregon, where near-shore earthquakes pose the largest tsunami threat.  He says for local events there’s no substitute for education and training, because there simply isn’t enough time between the earthquake and the tsunami for NOAA’s warning centers to issue an alert.

“After the shaking stops you have probably, at most, 10 minutes before water starts to flood the city.  In Seward, since there were landslides that were caused as an effect of the earthquake, it was about a minute and a half before the dock completely disappeared from the waterfront.  There’s no way a warning center can give out a warning to a community that all heck is going to break loose in a minute and a half.”

But others are quick to add that the budget reductions will also impact NOAA’s ability to forecast tsunamis generated by distant earthquake events.  Gerard Fryer is a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.  He’s worried about a proposed $1 million cut to NOAA’s DART buoy network.  The buoys generate detailed information about the direction, magnitude and speed of a tsunami.

“I think what they have planned is simply to reduce the amount of time they budget for repairs.”

Fryer says that worries him, because at current funding levels only about 70 percent of the buoys are operational at any given time and he says the buoys in the Aleutian chain, which are the most important ones for forecasting tsunamis headed for Hawaii, are also the ones that break most often.

“Things tend to break a little more often if they’re subject to severe weather.  Now the DART is an instrument on the bottom, but there’s a surface buoy and those really get beat up in heavy weather and sometimes they drift.  And so the likelihood of failure in the Aleutians is probably a little bit higher than elsewhere.”

NOAA spokesperson Susan Buchanan says there’s redundancy in the DART system and that regardless, the seismic networks that actually generate tsunami warnings won’t be affected by the cuts.

“Tsunami warnings are based on seismic information, information from the seismic gauges.  They’re not based on the DART buoys, so regardless of the DART buoys we would be well-positioned to put out warnings and watches for a tsunami.”

Both Fryer and Alaska seismologist Roger Hansen challenge that assertion, although for different reasons.

Fryer says the Aleutian DART buoy system is critical for understanding how big a tsunami will be and when it will hit Hawaii.  Congressional testimony about the DART network indicates it’s saved communities millions of dollars in evacuation costs.

Hansen, on the other hand, simply challenges the fact that the budget cuts won’t impact seismic networks.  He says while the U.S. Geological Survey operates most of the seismic stations used to generate warnings, the ones in the Aleutians are operated by the Alaska Earthquake Information Center.  That’s his organization, the one that will lose some of its funding under the proposed cuts.

“The fact that these are the only high quality instruments – almost the only high quality instruments – in the Aleutians and in the Bering islands, like St. Paul, makes them valuable – invaluable – to the tsunami warning centers.  So those have to continue.”

NOAA’s Buchanan confirms that her agency’s funding for that particular seismic network will disappear with the cuts.  But she emphasizes that tsunami warnings will continue to be generated and that federal education and outreach programs will not stop.

The budget reduction is scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2012.

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