House scrutinizes tsunami warnings

House Science Committee members questioned tsunami experts today about the Bush administration's proposed tsunami warning plan, which is estimated to cost $37.5 million.

Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), in his first committee hearing of the year, said the president's plan must offer a program of public awareness and not simply more ocean buoys.

Boehlert also quizzed an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about why it took officials at the agency's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center seven hours to notify State Department officials of the recent devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.

Brig. Gen. David Johnson, director of NOAA's National Weather Service, looked a bit shaken by the questions, but he answered by explaining that the current buoy system is not the latest technology.

"When we build the new system, it should be better," Johnson said. As for the notification delay, he said employees waited for confirmation of a wave to avoid a costly false alarm.

NOAA's contribution to the administration's tsunami warning plan includes 32 new deep-ocean buoys in the Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean oceans and 38 new sea-level monitoring and tide-gauge stations. The agency will also contribute $24 million to the program.

Jay Wilson, coordinator for earthquake and tsunami programs in Oregon's Emergency Management Division, testified that the administration's proposed oceanwide buoy program would not limit loss of life in coastal areas nearest to earthquake faults. But he said public education would improve the administration's plan.

"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," Wilson said.

Vice-Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA's administrator, said he will lobby vigorously for creating a global tsunami warning system when he attends the Third Earth Observation Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, next month.

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