Friday, February 24, 2012

NOAA's Scott Smullen Responds to Questions on Tsunami Warning Funding

On Wednesday Progressive Alaska published a story on reported severe cuts in the FY 2013 National Oceanographic Administration to tsunami warning infrastructure.  The story was based on a press release coming from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.  Other media sources took up the story too.

Wednesday morning I contacted Alaska Sen. Mark Begich's press secretary, Julie Hasquet.  Nobody in the senator's DC or Anchorage office was yet aware of PEER's claim.  I also left a couple messages at NOAA public contact numbers.  Sen. Begich responded quickly with this message:
I am reviewing the President's request for NOAA's 2013 funding now.  As Chair of the Oceans Subcommittee I'll be convening a hearing in a few weeks to ask the Administration some tough questions about these proposed cuts.  Alaskans count on NOAA's tsunami warning systems to keep our coastal communities safe.  A recent National Academy of Sciences study identified tsunami buoy reliability as a key vulnerability in the system--so I'll be taking a close look at NOAA's proposal and working to ensure this critical warning system is not compromised by ill-advised budget cuts." 
Now Scott Smullen, deputy director of public affairs for NOAA, has written to me. Here is his letter [emphases added by PA]:
Your blog was brought to my attention.  PEER has erroneous claims about tsunami warning program funding that I want to correct with these points.     Thanks much.  -Scott

The Palmer-Alaska based tsunami warning center is fully funded in the President's FY13 budget request with no cuts to essential mission/program requirements.  Our tsunami warning center in Alaska will continue to provide tsunami advisories and warnings, and we will continue to work in partnership with Alaska on a wide range of tsunami science activities.

NOAA will continue working in close partnership with other state and federal agencies on community-based tsunami preparedness, particularly through the TsunamiReady program. The mission critical operations of seismic detection and warning development and communication systems were prioritized in the budget.

Currently 9 out of 39 DART buoys are inoperable, and 4 of these are scheduled to be serviced in June as sea and weather conditions permit. Knowing that DART outages will occur, the program’s goal is 80 percent operability at a given time. The proposed budget cuts will lower that goal slightly, to 72 percent.

NOAA will continue to operate the most mission-critical tsunami activities, specifically full funding to operate the tsunami warning centers, support for the critical observing system networks (i.e., seismic networks), continue to maintain the DART buoy network, and continue the TsunamiReady preparedness and education program.

DART buoys are helpful in the warning process because they give forecasters confirmation of the existence of a tsunami when the wave passes over the DART. However, the most critical observation tool for tsunami warnings are the seismic stations. People are not warned about tsunamis based on DART information, so this funding cut will not impact issuing warnings.

A series of supplemental funding sources over the years – beyond  NOAA’s baseline budget – allowed us to continue the TWEAK program. The program was started with an earmark from Senator Stevens in Alaska, although similar programs were never implemented for other tsunami-prone areas of the country. The most recent funding source was money allocated to NOAA for tsunami education when the FCC auctioned off surplus wireless spectrum after broadcasters switched from analog to digital broadcasting in 2008. That funding runs out in FY12, so the FY13 budget reflects this reduction. People are more aware of tsunamis and better prepared to respond to a tsunami threat due to the successful implementation of this program, which was always scheduled be completed by the end of FY12.

In the past, PEER has been very reliable for information.  I'll be checking with their national office on this, to see if they have further information.

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