Where the Buoys Are, Budget Cuts Wait for Me

National Journal
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Maggie Fox
March 11, 2011, 12:41 p.m.

An early-warn­ing sys­tem that helped res­id­ents on the West Coast of the U.S. pre­pare for Fri­day’s tsunami worked as de­signed but is vul­ner­able to pro­posed budget cuts, ex­perts say.

The 8.9-mag­nitude earth­quake that struck Ja­pan has killed at least 1,000 people, ac­cord­ing to Tokyo-based Ky­odo News, and triggered a tsunami that dev­ast­ated some coastal areas of the coun­try and caused dam­age as far away as Cali­for­nia.

A string of 39 buoys op­er­ated by the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion is an im­port­ant part of the world’s early-warn­ing sys­tem for such waves. As re­cently as last Oc­to­ber, a pan­el of ex­perts at the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil raised con­cerns that the warn­ing sys­tem had weak­nesses.

Nev­er­the­less, it worked well in this case, NOAA said. “I think we showed today we were able to suc­cess­fully get the in­form­a­tion out to every­one who needed it,” Laura Fur­gione, the deputy as­sist­ant ad­min­is­trat­or of NOAA’s Na­tion­al Weath­er Ser­vice, told re­port­ers in a con­fer­ence call. 

 “There were no, quote, holes in this situ­ation.” 

The Na­tion­al Weath­er Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees Or­gan­iz­a­tion has been com­plain­ing that pro­posed budget cuts will dam­age the ser­vice’s abil­ity to warn people not only about tsuna­mis but also about oth­er dan­ger­ous events, such as hur­ricanes, tor­nadoes, and bliz­zards.

The uni­on says that Con­gress’s con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion for keep­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment fun­ded would cut the Weath­er Ser­vice’s budget by 28 per­cent and dam­age early-warn­ing ef­forts.

“What would hap­pen if the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion passes [is], there will be a dis­mant­ling of our na­tion’s early-warn­ing sys­tem,” Dan Sobi­en, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Weath­er Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees Or­gan­iz­a­tion, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “It would res­ult in a roughly 30 per­cent cut in the budget of the Na­tion­al Weath­er Ser­vice.” Sobi­en said that cur­rent plans call for the Weath­er Ser­vice to close in­di­vidu­al of­fices for about a month at a time on a rolling basis.

Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller, D-W.Va., who chairs the Com­merce, Sci­ence, and Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee, said that Fri­day’s events un­der­score the danger.

“Earth­quakes and all weath­er events hap­pen any­where, any­time put­ting every­one at risk,” he said in a state­ment.

“Con­gress must heed this cruel wake-up call and stop pro­posed cuts to es­sen­tial NOAA pre­dic­tion pro­grams that would en­danger lives. We must push to make the smart in­vest­ments in our greatest minds and re­sources at NOAA, so that we can bet­ter pre­dict severe weath­er events and be pre­pared for the worst.”

Martha Grabow­ski of Le Moyne Col­lege in Syra­cuse, N.Y., and Rens­selaer Poly­tech­nic In­sti­tute in Troy, N.Y., helped lead the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil pan­el that re­por­ted on weak­nesses in the warn­ing sys­tem, which was up­graded con­sid­er­ably in the years after a 2004 quake in In­done­sia and a res­ult­ing tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in the In­di­an Ocean basin. 

Key to the sys­tem is a string of Deep-ocean As­sess­ment and Re­port­ing of Tsuna­mis (DART) devices, ocean-floor sensors that can de­tect changes in pres­sure when a tsunami rolls over and are de­signed to trans­mit a sig­nal to a buoy on the sur­face, which in turn sends a sig­nal to a satel­lite, which then re­lays it to a Tsunami Warn­ing Cen­ter. 

“Most con­cern­ing is the com­mit­tee’s find­ing that as much as 30 per­cent of DART sta­tions are in­op­er­able at any giv­en time,” the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil, an in­de­pend­ent re­search or­gan­iz­a­tion, re­por­ted. 

Des­pite that, “they work well,” Grabow­ski said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “The sys­tem is highly re­li­able.”

But the sys­tem is vul­ner­able to budget cuts, she said.

“I think that in years where budgets are tight, it is easi­er to fo­cus on areas where dis­asters don’t hap­pen all the time. One of the prob­lems with tsuna­mis is they hap­pen fairly in­fre­quently,” Grabow­ski said. “It is harder to get the at­ten­tion of the pub­lic and le­gis­lat­ors.”

NOAA’s Fur­gione said that some of the buoys are cur­rently not work­ing but that the situ­ation did not af­fect the agency’s abil­ity to warn people in plenty of time to evac­u­ate vul­ner­able coastal areas.

“We do have some DARTs that are down in the Pa­cific re­gion,” she said. Heavy winter seas make it hard to get to some of the devices to ser­vice them, Fur­gione said, but ad­ded that the sys­tem is set up to ac­count for this.

“We have backup op­er­a­tions for everything that we do,” she said.

Fur­gione ac­know­ledged that the $28 mil­lion budget for the DART pro­gram is sched­uled for cuts. “We’ll do the best with what we have,” she said.

Contributions by Josh Smith