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Tsunamis: Is the U.S. Prepared?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - 12:00am
Washington, DC

Opening Statement By Ranking Member Bart Gordon

Good morning. I thank Chairman Boehlert for convening this important hearing.

The tsunami that struck seven nations in the Indian Ocean one month ago shocked the world with its awesome, destructive power. We cannot recover the lost lives, but we can ensure that we are well-prepared to deal with natural disasters here in the U.S. And we can help other nations to be better prepared as well.

Tsunamis are rare events, but large ones can have devastating impacts when they occur. Compared to the cost in life and property, the cost of a tsunami warning and emergency preparation system is small.

The Administration’s tsunami warning system improvement plan provides $37.5 million to NOAA and USGS over the next two years to upgrade the Pacific warning system and deploy a detection system in the Atlantic and Caribbean basins. The plan provides the basics to cover the coastal U.S. It is a good start.

However, I am concerned that once the headlines have disappeared and the memories of the recent tragedy have dimmed we may have a deployed network without sufficient funds to sustain its operational capabilities. The current network in the Pacific has six buoys, but three are not operating. Clearly, maintenance is an issue we need to consider.

I also believe we need sufficient sustained support for the essential public education and state and local emergency preparedness programs that translate detection and warning into life-saving actions. Most of the funding in the current proposal is devoted to the procurement and deployment of technology.

Mr. Wilson of Oregon Emergency Management is recommending sustained annual funding for the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program of $7.8 million. We currently spend about $4 million. The Administration’s proposal includes an additional $5 million over 2 years – $2.6 million less than Mr. Wilson’s recommendation. So, the $37.5 million over two years included in the Administration’s proposal is a good start, but does not appear to be a complete proposal.

And where will the money come from? It is no secret that we are in a terrible budget situation. If we are spending money to upgrade and expand the tsunami warning system, are we going to pay for it with reductions to other programs? If so, which ones?

There are other programs at NOAA that are essential to preserve lives and property. Is the tsunami warning system going to come at the expense of nationwide implementation of improved flood forecasting models? Will funding for research to improve tornado and hurricane forecasting be cut? Severe storms and the flooding associated with them occur every year. The forecasting and warning systems for these natural disasters also need to be upgraded and maintained.

As we design and deploy this tsunami warning system, we must provide sustainable funding to ensure its continued operation. But we should not sacrifice other equally important NOAA programs and operations in an effort to develop a temporary response to yesterday’s crisis. If we are going to do this, we should do it right. Doing it right requires that we know the full initial and annual costs needed to deliver the benefits the public expects from this warning system.

We have an excellent witness panel. I welcome all of you to Washington and thank you for appearing before the Committee this morning. I look forward to your testimony and to hearing your thoughts on how we can best address the development of an end-to-end emergency warning and response system for tsunamis.

Opening Statement By Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Mr. Chairman,

I want to thank you for organizing this briefing on how NOAA, USGS, universities, and State agencies can assist with the detection and relief efforts of tsunamis and other natural disasters.  Just last week I traveled with my Congressional colleagues to Colombo and Galle in Sri Lanka on a delegation led by Congressman Joseph Crowley.  I saw the devastation caused by the December 26 tsunami which took thousands of lives.  I have never witnessed such extensive destruction and loss of life.  I hope that the technologies that the Science Committee will help to develop will help to minimize losses in future natural disasters.

I was able to see first hand how USAID workers and U.S. Armed Forces personnel were helping in the effort to provide assistance and rebuild.  Despite all the horrific devastation, it was a welcome sight to see American personnel putting so much work and effort into helping the people struck by the tsunami.  You could see on the faces of the Sri Lankan people that they were grateful of the efforts being made on their behalf.  Those Americans in Galle have served their nation well and we should all be proud of their efforts.

Tsunami Causes and History

Tsunamis are walls of water that inundate coastal areas with little or no warning, often taking many lives and causing extensive property damage.  They are initiated by sudden underwater disruptions and in this regard they differ from wind generated waves because the power they pack is not limited to the surface.  Tsunamis are usually started as a result of an undersea earthquake, which for years was considered to be the sole cause of tsunamis.  Research is now showing that tsunami generation involves intricate interactions between earthquakes, undersea landslides, and sympathetic vibrations between the quake and the ocean above it.

Tsunamis have been known since 426 B.C., and between 1990 and 2001 there were 11 major tsunami events in the Pacific Rim, killing over 4,000 people and causing hundreds of millions in property damage.  Previously, the most devastating tsunami occurred in 1755 in the Atlantic which killed 60,000 people and destroyed much of Lisbon.  By comparison, the death toll from the Banda Aceh Tsunami could exceed 150,000 on top of the unthinkable numbers of displaced, orphaned, and injured.  Subsequent disease and untreated injuries will undoubtedly add to these statistics.

U.S. Assistance

The President has already pledged $350 million in direct support to the affected countries on top of the medical, infrastructure, and logistics support from the U.S. military.  I want to encourage my colleagues in the Congress to work together as we did last fall to provide nearly $14 billion in relief to the Southeastern states and Caribbean nations following the four devastating hurricanes.

In addition to the technical assistance our U.S. military is providing for the relief efforts, we want to also make sure that U.S. scientific capability is available to the relief efforts and also in the prediction and warning of future natural disasters.

I also want to recognize the private sector that has shown unprecedented outpouring of generosity with donations of supplies and money.  In my own district, I helped to organize a group known as Houston's Solutions for Tsunami Victims held a Medical Relief Drive and Save the Children Effort in Houston on January 9th in which thousands of vital medical supplies were collected and will be delivered to tsunami-stricken areas.

Research and Early Warning

Beyond the immediate needs, I want to encourage the Science Committee to work with me in developing programs that will help to minimize losses suffered in future natural disasters.  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey lead the U.S. in the research, monitoring, and warning of tsunamis and other natural disasters.  For example, the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis Project (DART) can detect ocean level anomalies as small as 1/2 inch in 20,000 feet of water to determine if a tsunami event is occurring in the deep sea.  This system was useful in avoiding a false alarm in response to an Alaskan earthquake that could have but, did not cause a tsunami.  DART stations cost about $250,000 to purchase and around $125,000 per year to maintain.  Stations are now located off the coasts of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and Chile, but we need to consider how this system can be expanded to other parts of the world.  Reliability of the DART system needs to be understood as we consider its deployment worldwide.

Research on the causes of tsunamis is also needed.  One of the most severe tsunamis in recent history occurred in Papua New Guinea in July 1998.  The initiating earthquake was unexceptional at a magnitude of 7.1 - the size of an earthquake that strikes somewhere in the world about every three weeks.  Geological modeling strongly suggested that the quake caused an underwater landslide that together triggered the exceptional size tsunami that killed at least 2,500 people.  Other preliminary research indicates that under some conditions, tsunamis may be detectable from aircraft or satellites using radar or radiometers miles away from coastal areas.

NASA recently provided me with some preliminary information that their JASON-1 satellite sensors did detect the December 26 tsunami, and I understand that NASA is already collaborating with NOAA in the analysis of this data.  While JASON-1 was not designed as part of a tsunami warning system, these data may help to identify new sensor and detection systems for tsunamis that will reliably predict tsunamis with a low rate of false alarms.

ASTER, a cooperative effort between NASA and Japan's Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, is a satellite sensing system that obtains high-resolution image data in 14 channels over targeted areas of the Earth's surface, as well as black-and-white stereo images.  With a revisit time between four and 16 days, ASTER data is already being used to assess the damage to the countries devastated by the tsunami.

Science Committee Opportunities

The preliminary data from NASA indicates that new analyses of data from existing sensing systems may be useful in predicting tsunamis and other impending natural disasters.  New types of sensing systems may also help in this regard.  Ab initio modeling, taking into account all of the data from this tsunami, will be important in understanding how to prevent future devastation.  I am looking forward to working with the Science Committee to identify these opportunities for NOAA, USGS, NASA and the other federal science agencies.

Opening Statement By Rep. Lincoln Davis

Good morning.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member, for the opportunity for us to discuss the Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred on December 26, 2004.  Thank you, witnesses, for your presence today.

It is hard to imagine the destruction caused by that tsunami.  My district, in rural Tennessee, seems so far removed from a natural disaster such as this one.

But my constituents, whose loved ones are bravely serving this nation in our military, know the feelings of sorrow and despair when lives are lost.  Tornadoes and floods affect our area, and so I can understand the grave importance of having plans in place to predict these forces of nature so that people can prepare as best they can.

I have seen much on the news about the December 26th Tsunami – we all have.  But it is my hope today that these witnesses who are experts in their fields will be able to tell us what we can do in the future to better prepare, better predict, better communicate, and better protect people from future tsunamis.

It is frustrating to know that all the world's advanced technologies couldn't save 212,000 people.  212,000 of anything is hard to fathom, and the loss of just one life seems unbearable.  Our hearts and prayers go to the families of those affected by this terrible disaster.

Mr. Chairman, thank you and I yield back the balance of my time.

Opening Statement By Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

First of all, I would like to thank Chairman Boehlert for calling this important hearing to review how prepared the U.S. is for tsunamis.  I also want to thank our distinguished witnesses for agreeing to appear today and answer our questions.

We were all quite disturbed by the catastrophic images that were disseminated worldwide last December.  As casualties have risen above the 200,000, our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims and their families.

As we discuss the enormous devastation caused by this natural disaster, the one question we must ask ourselves is could this have been avoided?

We here in the U.S. at least like to believe that thanks to the sophisticated tsunami-detection systems in the Pacific Ocean, we are safe from tsunami harm.  However, recent reports have suggested that half of our system is in desperate need repair, leaving substantial blind spots in our detection system and our beaches vulnerable.

This is unacceptable.  The nations around the Pacific Ocean basin have had a tsunami-warning network in place since the 1940s.  Since the mid '90s, the U.S. has had sensors at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean floor capable of detecting destructive waves and signaling to surface buoys, which then radio the information to satellites and onward to scientists.  No such Indian Ocean tsunami-warning system was in place.

Equally as important as increasing technology, there should also be an increase in education.  There was little public education in low-income countries to the dangers of tsunamis.  The public needs to understand and react properly to tsunami warning signs, such as the rattling of an earthquake that initiates the wave, the dramatic recession of water from the beaches, and a deep rumbling that immediately precedes the wave.  Information needs to get from federal to State and local agencies--and then be transmitted to the public.  Most importantly, the public needs to understand what to do with that information.

I hope the witnesses here today can help us come up with ideas on how exactly to accomplish this.

With that being said, I again thank the Chair and Ranking Member for this hearing.

Opening Statement By Rep. Jerry Costello

Good morning.  I want to thank the witnesses for appearing before our Committee to discuss the causes of tsunamis, the risks they may pose to the U.S. and to the rest of the world, and how the U.S. should prepare for them.  We have all shared the grief and recognized the catastrophic damage caused by the tsunami in South Asia.  While Americans have generously responded to the disaster, we also have an important role to play in preventing such horrific loss of life should another underwater earthquake occur.

A tsunami as powerful as the one that devastated South and Southeast Asia has never hit the United States, but that does not mean it could not happen.  Even a lesser catastrophe could be deadly, and it would only take a minor underwater landslide in the Canary Islands to trigger a big eruption.  The Atlantic Ocean, like the Indian Ocean, lacks tsunami sensors.  There were no sensors in the Indian Ocean because tsunamis were deemed less likely there, but now we know that "less likely" is not good enough.  Merely detecting a disaster and having the technology to access the magnitude of the earthquake will not minimize the impact of future natural disasters.  Experts believe that millions of lives lost in the recent tsunami disaster could have been saved if the Indian Ocean countries had the capabilities to administer warnings about the impending catastrophe to people along the coasts.  This claim has caused us to re-examine our own risk assessment and detection systems for tsunamis and I am pleased this committee is having this hearing today in order to address the challenges that lie ahead.

I welcome our panel of witnesses and look forward to their testimony.


Panel 1

1 - Hon. Jay Inslee
A Representative in Congress from the State of Washington

Panel 2

1 - Dr. Charles Groat
Director United States Geological Survey United States Geological Survey
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2 - David Johnson
Director National Weather Service National Weather Service
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3 - Dr. John Orcutt
President of the American Geophysical Union Deputy Director for Research, Scripps Institution of Oceanography President of the American Geophysical Union Deputy
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4 - Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam
Director Columbia Center for Hazards and Risk Research, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University Columbia Center for Hazards and Risk Research, L
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5 - Jay Wilson
Coordinator of Earthquake and Tsunami Programs, Plans and Training Section Oregon Emergency Management Oregon Emergency Management
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109th Congress