NOAA’s Big Storm Problem in Hawaii
New Regional Office Inaccessible During Tsunami, Hurricane or Major Storm
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s brand new Pacific Regional Center is accessible only by a pontoon bridge that will be shut down and possibly rendered inoperable by a hurricane or tsunami, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In that event, NOAA operations, such as its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, may be compromised at the moment they are needed most.
The new center, now called the Daniel K. Inouye Pacific Regional Center, would house all agency operations in the region, except for the Honolulu Weather Forecast Office. It is located on Ford Island, a low-lying island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. Ford Island is owned by the U.S. Navy, which also operates the only bridge connecting it to Oahu. Prior to any major storm or after a tsunami warning, the Navy will raise the bridge to evacuate its ships.
NOAA developed an evacuation plan using small boats during bridge closures:
“The Navy has established transportation utilizing the USS Arizona Tour boats and other assets when it has been determined that the bridge will be out of service for a significant period of time and adversely impact the movement of people to and from Ford Island….Each boat is capable of transporting 150 persons per trip.”
In response to employee questions about this plan, on May 13, 2013 NOAA issued a “Questions and Responses” document which appeared to raise more questions than it answered by indicating –
- Since the “Navy will evacuate its ships out of the harbor for tsunamis and hurricanes to avoid damage and loss of life,” the small Navy gray boats from the USS Arizona also “will not be allowed to operate in the harbor” in unsafe storm conditions. Thus, evacuations would have to take place “prior or after storm events.” If there is an extended bridge closure NOAA could not rotate fresh people in to relieve stranded staff who would be sheltered in place; and
- NOAA is “not planning practice drills for boat evacuations….The low likelihood of occurrence and the risk to employee safety is [sic] the primary reason for not conducting practice drills.”
“If NOAA’s evacuation plan is too dangerous to even practice, it hardly inspires confidence that it will work in the midst of an emergency,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who has urged NOAA to co-locate the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center with the state civil defense office on Diamond Head, well above sea level, so that its functions would not be impacted by a tsunami or major storm. “NOAA has got to do a better job of preparing for the very events it is supposed to predict.”
NOAA contends that bridge closure is too unlikely to seriously plan for. Yet, the agency has refused to defend its assessment of tsunami risks to Ford Island from a formal PEER challenge under the Data Quality Act charging 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.
“Avoiding emergency situations by locating key assets in safe places is the best way to minimize risks,” Ruch added. “NOAA should be the last organization to bury its head, let alone an entire regional center, in the sand.”