U.S. Plans Global Tsunami Warning System

The United States is moving on several fronts toward a global tsunami warning system following the Asian catastrophe.

A design is emerging from the State Department’s Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) for protecting huge populations in coastal areas, and will be presented to the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Disaster Reduction this month in Kobe, Japan.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is proposing legislation to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration establish a system of up to 50 buoy-based sensors throughout the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans and the Caribbean Sea. The system would need the cooperation of other coastal nations.

“We’re already looking into the practical elements of what such a system would be, what it would cost and who would run it,” said Larry Roeder, a top State Department policy adviser for disaster management, who heads the GDIN. “There has been talk over the years that maybe we should have a global system, but it’s expensive.”

Commerce Secretary-nominee Carlos Gutierrez said at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that “developing greater analytical and predictive capabilities … with regard to potentially hazardous weather and maritime conditions” will be one of his top priorities.

Roeder said that because of a massive movement of population to coastal areas there are “lots of other parts of the world where you have large population centers along the coast, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been seeing lots of disasters.”

The GDIN has conducted experiments based on real crises in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia, even simulating a response to an earthquake in Russia, In the case of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake Dec. 26 in the Indian Ocean, however, there were no instruments to let scientists know the massive tsunami was on the way.

It was two hours after the quake that NOAA officials learned through Internet wire service reports that a tsunami had hit Sri Lanka, which does not participate in the Pacific warning system.

Had those instruments been in place, NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher says, thousands of lives might have been spared.

Scientists in Australia also are designing an Indian Ocean warning system that they say could be built within a year for about $20 million, but that cost doesn’t include the communications links needed to warn people in coastal communities to flee before the giant waves arrive.

Such a system would have about 30 seismographs to detect earthquakes and about 10 tidal gauges and six special buoys for deep ocean assessment and reporting of tsunamis.

The buoys, which cost up to $250,000 each to install and another $50,000 a year to maintain, are needed to determine whether an earthquake has generated a tsunami.

Only one such system, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center run by NOAA, now exists. But it was only three years ago when that system got a half-dozen sensors on the ocean floor to transmit tsunami data to buoys on the surface, where it is then relayed by satellite to scientists.

Lautenbacher hopes to add 15 more surface buoys in the Pacific, but Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Thursday it would take seven years to complete even that.

“That is not acceptable with what is happening out there,” Inouye told Gutierrez. “We have the technology, we have the system in place. All we need is the commitment to carry this out.”

Eventually, U.S. officials hope to cover all of the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea in the warning system. All those areas are unprotected now.

“If you had a huge tsunami hitting Florida or New York, or it could go right up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, you would have a major disaster,” Roeder said.

Often it takes such a disaster to improve warning systems. The Hawaii center was established three years after hundreds of people were killed in 1946 in Hilo when an earthquake hundreds of miles away near Alaska triggered enormous waves.

Over the years, the United Nations and other agencies that track tsunamis have endorsed a similar system for the Indian Ocean. Yet countries that suffered the highest death tolls in the latest catastrophe, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, have said they lack the funds to finance it.

Among the nations affected by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, only Indonesia received any warning, and then only indirectly through Australia. Thailand, India and Indonesia now want to join a system.

Associated Press writers John Heilprin and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Global Disaster Information Network: http://www.gdin.org/