NOAA revisits tsunami preparedness

With their attention now focused on boosting hurricane preparedness in the aftermath of Katrina, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials are also wrestling with thin preparedness for a potentially deadlier disaster -- a tsunami.

When a tsunami killed thousands in Southeast Asia this past winter, three out of six of NOAA’s deep-ocean buoys were not working. The buoys' function is to detect tsunamis before they approach the United States’ Pacific Coast. After repairs, two of the buoys have malfunctioned again, according to NOAA officials.

NOAA activated a six-buoy system in 2001, placing three near Alaska, two close to Oregon and Washington state, and one near the equator. In January, two buoys near Alaska and one off the coast of Oregon were not working.

Crew aboard NOAA ships later repaired all three. But they soon discovered that they need to fix a buoy along the Alaskan coast and another near the Oregon coast.

Even if all six buoys were operational, coverage would be spotty, according to some experts. An adequate buoy system for monitoring the entire Pacific basin should include at least 21 working buoys, according to one NOAA oceanographer involved in last winter’s tsunami response.

Lawmakers have taken steps to deploy a denser array of buoys. A seventh, second-generation buoy was added off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, for example. Employees aboard NOAA’s ship, Alaskan Enterprise, will service the two defunct buoys later this month, according to NOAA officials.

“There was additional delay in the servicing of the nonoperational Alaska system due to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on maintenance crew availability,” NOAA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said yesterday.

Scheduling problems, arranging for ships and transporting parts and personnel to ports added to the delays. Because ship voyages are costly, officials usually wait to service multiple buoys with one visit, according to NOAA.

Installation and recovery efforts require a ship large enough to house a crane capable of operating in rough weather. Each buoy costs about $260,000 to buy and deploy and about $200,000 a year to maintain.

Members of the House Science Committee recently approved a bill that would increase funding and re-emphasize the administration's request for 32 new deep-ocean buoys in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.

No tsunami buoys float in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea, where tension between the Atlantic and Caribbean plates creates another potential disaster zone.

The bill would also stress community education and tsunami preparedness, both of which are vital to any successful preparedness plan.

Overall funding under the bill would be $86 million in three years, more than the $37.5 million in two years that Bush administration officials originally requested.

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