Witnesses Say U.S. Vulnerable to Major Tsunami


Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San Diego

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 26, 2005 - A panel of expert witnesses, including the top two U.S. officials directly responsible for tsunami prediction and preparedness, told the House Science Committee today that the U.S. is vulnerable to a major tsunami and that current detection and prediction capabilities are inadequate. The panel included John Orcutt of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

Citing limited detection capabilities in the Pacific Ocean and essentially no such capabilities in the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea, the non-government witnesses expressed their general support for a plan announced by the Bush Administration to upgrade and expand the U.S. Tsunami Warning System. However, they had numerous recommendations to improve the proposal and expressed concern about the administration's commitment to ongoing funding and urged a greater emphasis on involving state and local officials and increasing public awareness and education. Their testimony was delivered before the House Science Committee at the first congressional hearing to examine the Indian Ocean tsunami and the tsunami threat to the U.S.

"The administration is to be applauded for coming forward quickly with a cogent, targeted and affordable proposal to improve tsunami detection for the U.S. and for its commitment to improve tsunami detection internationally," said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "But detection is only one piece of the kind of comprehensive effort that is needed to reduce vulnerability to tsunamis. Warning systems, education, research and development, land-use planning and ecosystem protection are all necessary if any program is to be effective."

Members at the hearing repeatedly pressed the administration witnesses on whether education would be adequately addressed by the proposal, particularly since the West Coast could be struck by a tsunami generated so close to shore that the wave would hit before detectors could provide any warning.

"The U.S. is in a position not only to ensure safer communities here at home, but also to equip our neighbors around the globe with tools to respond when disaster strikes," stated Science Committee Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN). "If we're serious about mitigating effects of future tsunami, then we must make serious financial commitments to detection technology and maintenance, as well as enhanced notification systems and local education plans-and those commitments must not come at the expense of vital programs already underway. A responsible investment in the safety of our citizens must be comprehensive in approach."

Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said: "Unfortunately, it has taken this tragic event to bring natural disaster response planning to our attention today. However, now that the opportunity is upon us we must act quickly to establish a detection and warning system for the United States, and collaborate intensely on an international system."

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told the committee that there is a 10-14 percent chance that the Oregon coast will be hit by a tsunami comparable in size to the one that recently hit South Asia within the next 50 years.

Discussing the frequency with which tsunamis occur, Brigadier General David L. Johnson (ret.), assistant administrator of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and director of the National Weather Service (NWS), said that between 1900 and 2004, 923 tsunamis struck the Pacific Ocean, 120 of which caused casualties and damage. "Furthermore, there was no single year during this period that was free of tsunamis," he said. Gen. Johnson, who as head of the NWS oversees tsunami protection efforts, said the current U.S. Tsunami Warning System consists of two Tsunami Warning Centers; roughly 100 water level gauges; and six Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoys, all of which are deployed in the Pacific.

On January 14, the administration announced a $37.5 million plan to upgrade and expand the Tsunami Warning System. Gen. Johnson told the committee the president's plan would fortify U.S. tsunami detection capabilities by deploying an additional 32 DART buoys (25 in the Pacific and seven in the Atlantic and Caribbean); installing 38 new sea-level monitoring stations; ensuring continuous staffing of the two Tsunami Warning Centers; upgrading the Global seismographic Network; and increasing education and outreach to improve community preparedness.

Testifying in the dual capacity of deputy director for research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and president of the American Geophysical Union, Dr. John Orcutt said he was "extremely concerned" about the willingness and ability of the U.S. to maintain the expanded buoy system as proposed by the administration, saying, "Initial costs are not particularly high; however annual operations and maintenance costs will equal the initial costs within three to four years when the cost of ship time needed to service buoys is included."

Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of the Center for Hazards and Risk Research in the Earth Institute at Columbia University, testified that the administration's plan lacked sufficient emphasis on involving regional, state and local agencies in the development of a comprehensive tsunami warning program. "Existing tsunami and storm warning programs overseen by NOAA should be highlighted, strengthened where necessary and continuing revenue streams identified. The incorporation of new research results, inundation maps, risk assessments and other products should be rigorous and timely. The administration's proposal does not address these specific issues," he said.

Jay Wilson, earthquake and tsunami programs coordinator for Oregon Emergency Management, also urged a greater focus on coastal mapping and education, telling the committee that the administration's proposed buoy network would do little to protect populations that are located in close proximity to tsunami generating fault lines-such as communities along the Oregon coast-which would have only minutes to evacuate in the event of a tsunami. "The most cost-effective means of limiting loss of life from locally produced tsunamis is mapping where the dangerous areas are and then implementing a long-term, relentless public education campaign aimed at developing the 'culture of awareness' that will cause people to leave these dangerous areas when they feel a large earthquake at the coast. Empowering local government and the coastal states to implement this work is the most cost-effective means of solving the problem."

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