Senate committee passes tsunami bill

Reacting to the devastation caused by natural disasters in 2005, a Senate committee has approved a bill that would allocate $35 million a year to repair tsunami detection technology along the Pacific coast and create a national tsunami warning system.

The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee referred the bill to the full Senate last week.

According to a committee report accompanying the bill, the overall quality of the Pacific's tsunami detection buoys has decreased 50 percent in the past 15 months.

"This reduced coverage impaired NOAA's ability both to detect and warn of a tsunami and also identify costly false alarms," the report states.

The legislation, called the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act (WARN), would fund the formation of a nationwide tsunami warning system by $35 million a year from fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2012, including $5 million annually for projects to improve the resilience of all U.S. coastal communities.

Currently, there are no tsunami detection buoys floating in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea, where tension between the Atlantic and Caribbean plates creates another potential disaster zone.

Under the proposed legislation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would manage the national tsunami warning and mitigation program.

A section of the bill directs NOAA to immediately repair existing deep-ocean detection buoys, enlarge the array of buoys and upgrade and expand the current tide gauge network.

When the tsunami killed thousands in Southeast Asia last winter, three of NOAA’s six deep-ocean buoys were not working. After repairs, two malfunctioned again, according to agency officials.

Because ship voyages are costly, officials usually wait to service multiple buoys during one visit, according to NOAA. Installation and recovery efforts require a ship large enough to carry 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.

The Senate bill calls for the modernization of the U.S. tsunami warning system by the end of 2007. Additions would include four components: expansion of the warning system in the Pacific and the Atlantic/Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico regions, immediate repair of deep-ocean buoys and contractor oversight on the existing system, a federal/state program to improve community outreach and preparedness, and a tsunami research program. The legislation would also order NOAA to assist in international efforts by building systems in other regions of the world.

The sole global tsunami alert network is the United Nations' International Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific Ocean. It can only forecast tsunamis for locations in the Pacific.

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

The House bill would also stress community education and tsunami preparedness. Overall funding under the bill would be $86 million during three years, more than the $37.5 million in two years that Bush administration officials originally requested.

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