Hawaii Tsunami Response Gets Mixed Federal Signals
NOAA Wants Tsunami Warning Center Relocated Where Navy Says to Evacuate
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is relocating its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to an island in the middle of Pearl Harbor which the U.S. Navy says should be evacuated following any tsunami warning, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Navy is under orders to close the only bridge accessing the island housing the new NOAA regional facility, thus compromising the ability of the tsunami warning center to function in the event of a threatened tsunami.
Under the Navy protocol that has been in effect for the past year, all naval vessels will be evacuated from Pearl Harbor following a tsunami warning. The Navy will also close the Ford Island Bridge, the only access to the new NOAA center. That bridge may be raised to allow ships out that cannot get out the other entrance, making egress to and from the NOAA offices impossible.
NOAA, on the other hand, insists that the risk of tsunami inundation at Ford Island is low despite being on the south coast of Oahu, a location with a high tsunami danger. PEER had urged that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center be co-located with the state civil defense office on Diamondhead, well above sea level. In response to PEER questions about the suitability of siting a tsunami center on the shore of an island, NOAA quickly issued a report dismissing the likelihood of disruption from tsunamis.
After consulting a number of experts, PEER issued a detailed scientific challenge in 2009 to the NOAA report on the basis that it used inaccurate modeling, completely ignored historic data about Hawaiian tsunamis, contradicted its own scientific sources and conflicted with state and other independent experts. PEER filed its challenge under the Data Quality Act, which requires federal agencies to only use or distribute data of the highest accuracy and completeness, and demanded the report’s retraction.
NOAA did not respond for nearly a year, until September 2010, in the form of a less than two-page letter (apparently back-dated to January) which contended the report did not have to meet quality standards because it was not “Influential Scientific Information” since it did “not have a clear impact on important public policies or private sector decisions.” NOAA also contended that the report had indeed undergone adequate review even though it could not produce a single piece of paper evidencing a peer review process, in response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request.
“This is a case of NOAA putting its bureaucratic politics above public safety,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that NOAA thought its Pearl Harbor tsunami report important enough to warrant issuing a press release. “It is disturbing that NOAA will not defend the accuracy of the report it is relying upon to make a very important decision affecting tsunami preparedness.”
Beyond the scientific debate, it is unclear how the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center could operate following a tsunami warning if the Navy closes the only outside access to its office and orders a “mandatory evacuation for residents of Ford Island,” as its notice indicates. Also unexplained is why the Navy expects “potential damage to ships and piers from anticipated high surge” while NOAA plans no precautions.
“Common sense dictates that you do not put a tsunami detection center where it is itself vulnerable to a tsunami,” stated Ruch, pointing out that many factors, such as earthquake aftershocks and the need to warn coastal populations throughout the Pacific Basin endangered by a tsunami after it passes Hawaii, mean that the tsunami warning center needs to be fully operational long after the first wave hits Pearl Harbor. “Recent events demonstrate the prudence of erring on the side of caution when dealing with these epic natural forces.”