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.