A national advocacy group is attacking alleged government favoritism toward an Alaska-based tsunami warning center over its counterpart in Hawaii, saying it compromises U.S. tsunami preparedness.
According to a Wednesday statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the organization questions what it calls the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s focus on the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer over the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in the Hawaii town of Ewa Beach. Both centers are overseen by the National Weather Service, a NOAA subsidiary.
The PEER complaint was precipitated by NOAA’s August decision to rename the Palmer facility, formerly known as the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (WC/ATWC), after it was made responsible for all tsunami warnings along the coastline of the contiguous United States.
“This latest move continues a pattern of skewed and ruinous treatment of the two tsunami warning centers,” PEER officials wrote. “The Alaska center has historically had greater levels of funding, staffing and (information technology) support than PTWC while PTWC has suffered critical equipment failures for lack of support.”
In a statement, NOAA spokesperson Susan Buchanan dismisses the claims made by PEER as “baseless accusations,” calling them “a disservice to the public at large.”
“We simplified the name of our center in Alaska to better reflect the fact that its warning area of responsibility includes the entire U.S. mainland, not just the West Coast and Alaska,” Buchanan wrote. “This change was well-supported internally and by our partners, and in no way affects operations at the center in Hawaii or its staff and customers.”
In PEER's view, the uneven distribution of resources has gradually pitted the two centers against one another.
“By encouraging competition rather than collaboration between the warning centers, NOAA is creating a ‘race to the bottom’ by rewarding speed over accuracy,” PEER officials wrote. “Since the two centers are no longer co-equal partners, PTWC cannot act as the ‘hot-spare’ backup for the NTWC as it had previously.”
According to PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, the two centers monitor tsunami activity in two-thirds of the world’s oceans, yet include only 1 percent of NWS personnel.
“This move may be driven more by petty internal politics than any genuine attempt to enhance effectiveness,” Ruch said in the statement. “Tsunami warning is one discipline we cannot afford to screw up.”
A PEER document listing support for its allegations says an initial complaint was made to NOAA’s Inspector General in early 2011, three weeks before the March 11 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of Japan and hit areas across the Pacific Ocean.
“Unfortunately the primary message dissemination systems at (WC/ATWC) failed and for the first few hours after the earthquake the WC/ATWC had to resort to inefficient and less effective means (faxes, phone calls, etc.) of alerting their clients…to the tsunami threat,” PEER officials wrote.
The PEER documents also note federal funds sent to Alaska in an earmark by the late Sen. Ted Stevens to fund a “Tsunami Warning and Environmental Observatory for Alaska” (TWEAK), as evidence of an Alaska bias by the National Weather Service.
“Furthermore, are we to believe that the $1 million Senator Stevens gave to NWS Alaska Region (the TWEAK Program) did not free up other resources to be ‘repurposed’ by Alaska Region Headquarters?” PEER officials wrote. “Any claim that NOAA/NWS support for the (centers) is roughly equivalent is simply not credible.”
In a September 2012 response to the allegations provided by PEER, NOAA officials say the allegations were ultimately determined to be unfounded. They also note that the centers are still being brought under unified management following diverse origins.
“The two (centers) were established at Congressional direction following major tsunamis in Hawaii and Alaska. The centers were managed separately and developed their own funding streams, procedures and technology,” NOAA officials wrote.
A history of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, posted by center staff on its website, tracks the gradual transition of responsibilities from Hawaii to Alaska.
“PTWC issued tsunami warnings to Alaska until 1967 when the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was established in response to the 1964 Alaskan earthquake and tsunami,” center officials wrote. “In 2005, PTWC similarly began issuing local tsunami warnings to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in June 2007 that area of responsibility passed to WC/ATWC.”
The Hawaii facility currently issues international tsunami warnings for the South China and Caribbean seas. It also issued warnings for the Canadian province of British Columbia until 1996, when responsibility for that province -- as well as the states of California and Oregon -- were transferred to Alaska.
At NOAA, Buchanan rejects the claim that the Hawaii center has become less important over time.
“Contrary to PEER’s accusation of a downgrade to our tsunami warning center in Hawaii, it retains all of its warning responsibilities in the Pacific, and we are working to expand its warning authority to include the entire Caribbean region with the addition of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
In its recommendations, PEER calls for promoting the tsunami warning program (TWP) from an NWS initiative to a “line office” of NOAA, on par with the weather service and other agencies it oversees.
“Elevating the TWP to a line office under NOAA would improve communication and cooperation with other NOAA line offices and allow the TWP to govern its own affairs,” PEER officials wrote. “It would also relieve the NWS Pacific and Alaska regions the burden of having to support the TWP.”
In its 2012 response, NOAA says the Hawaii center’s funding had been higher than Alaska’s until 2008, when the TWEAK funding took effect. While the earmark has since expired, it has been replaced by funding from the NWS tsunami program.
“Given the austere budget climate facing the NWS, the NWS Tsunami Program requirements and functions must be prioritized to ensure that there is no degradation of service to the people and communities we serve,” NOAA officials wrote.
Editor's note: An inaccurate statement that the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer was renamed before it was made responsible for tsunami warnings to the contiguous United States has been corrected.