Tsunami Warning Reliability at Risk in Stealth Reorganization
Downgrade of Pacific Center Bypasses Experts and Endangers Those It Protects
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has quietly elevated its tsunami warning center in Alaska by relegating its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii to secondary status, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Experts warn, however, that this move may compromise the effectiveness of the entire tsunami warning system, both internationally and domestically.
In an August 8, 2013 memo to acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Laura Furgione, Deputy Director of NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), declares “we have officially changed the name of the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center to the National Tsunami Warning Center” to handle all tsunami warnings for “the contiguous US Coastline.” The memo briefly discusses the after-the-fact communication strategy including “socializing with the stakeholder Congressional delegations.”
According to the memo, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC has been continuously operating in Oahu since 1949) is left to focus “on executing NOAA’s international tsunami warning responsibilities (with the exception of Hawaii and the Pacific Territories)” and eventually would take over “tsunami alert responsibilities for Puerto Rico and the USVI [Virgin Islands].”
While the memo describes the move as “reducing confusion across the NOAA/NWS Tsunami Program stakeholders and the general public by better defining the roles of the two centers,” experts within the agency point out that it has actually increased confusion for some PTWC stakeholders who now wonder if they must obtain official tsunami information from Alaska. Moreover, it muddles PTWC’s role in handling tsunamis generated in international waters striking the U.S., such as the Japan tsunami of 2011. In addition –
- By encouraging competition rather than collaboration between the warning centers, NOAA is creating a “race to the bottom” by rewarding speed over accuracy;
- Since the two centers are no longer co-equal partners, PTWC cannot act as the “hot-spare” backup for the NTWC as it had previously; and
- The plan gives short shrift to PTWC’s international responsibilities and completely ignores its responsibilities to the U.S. military and State Department.
Neither of the Tsunami Warning Centers’ Directors have been directly part of ongoing, internal NWS discussions planning the reorganization. Notably, no one in the NWS national leadership, including the Tsunami Program Director, has ever worked at a tsunami warning center.
“There should be a broader debate before putting all our tsunami warning eggs in one basket,” urged PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the PTWC’s responsibilities cover two-thirds of the planet’s coastlines yet the entire tsunami program staff constitutes 1% of National Weather Service personnel. “Tsunami hazard detection is a highly specialized field and its experts should be at the table when decisions affecting operations are made.”
This latest move continues a pattern of skewed and ruinous treatment of the two tsunami warning centers. The Alaska center has historically had greater levels of funding, staffing and IT support than PTWC while PTWC has suffered critical equipment failures for lack of support.
“This move may be driven more by petty internal politics than any genuine attempt to enhance effectiveness,” Ruch added, pointing to internal documents charging that the NWS botched its Service Assessment of PTWC’s performance during the Samoa 2009 tsunami, recommending procedures that would have led to the failure of both U.S. tsunami warning centers during the Japan 2011 tsunami. “Tsunami warning is one discipline we cannot afford to screw up.”