Washington, DC — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is vetoing an effort to move its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to high ground that would enable it to function in the aftermath of a tsunami, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NOAA opposes plans to co-locate the tsunami warning center with Hawaiian state and local civil defense offices 300 feet above sea level on the high slopes of Diamond Head Crater and instead wants to put it in a new office building slated for construction on an island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
NOAA is insisting that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center be included within a new $242 million complex it plans to build on Ford Island, a U.S. Navy-owned site in Pearl Harbor on the south coast of Oahu. Hawaii, which has a history of tsunamis, is among the areas with the highest tsunami danger.
The Ford Island site is reachable only by a single, partly floating bridge that must be raised to allow the Navy vessels to escape the harbor. Ford Island would also have to be evacuated in the event of a tsunami, if NOAA followed its own protocols, but if the bridge is raised evacuation may not be possible. By contrast, the Diamond Head Crater location would be sufficiently elevated so as to continue to operate throughout any foreseeable tsunami-related event.
“The tsunami warning center has critical duties to perform after the first wave hits, including monitoring for aftershocks and additional, larger waves,” stated PEER executive Jeff Ruch. “By putting the tsunami warning center on a harbor island, NOAA is tending its own bureaucratic turf at the expense of public safety.”
NOAA has rebuffed inquiries from Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye and Rep. Neil Abercrombie on the matter by claiming that Ford Island is not located in “a tsunami inundation zone as defined by Hawaii State Civil Defense” but fails to mention that Ford Island was not reviewed for that purpose by the state because the modelers were denied access to the bathymetric data needed to make this determination.
NOAA’s principal claims for relocating the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to Ford Island have nothing to do with emergency preparedness and involve factors such as “Enhanced outreach and media relations” and “Improve visibility to local, state, national and international sectors.” The simple idea behind Ford Island is to consolidate all agency assets in Hawaii in one location.
In addition, the scientists working at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center are objecting to the move, citing a host of operational and logistical problems with the Ford Island location. The scientists also argue that the move will nullify much of the benefit from the $16.7 million NOAA is now spending to upgrade its tsunami warning system.
This month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that found NOAA lacks any risk assessment on its operations and strategic planning for responding to tsunamis or other catastrophes.
“Ford Island is a classic illustration of readiness myopia by NOAA documented in the GAO report,” Ruch added. “One does not have to be a geophysicist to question the wisdom of placing a key component of our tsunami warning system on a harbor island only a few feet above sea level.”
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, now located at Ewa Beach in Oahu, is responsible for Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal populations of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It also played a role in issuing warnings related to last December’s tragic Indian Ocean tsunami.