Budget Cuts Would Chop Tsunami Center Funding
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center could find itself the victim of a wave of budget cutting under measures being considered on Capitol Hill.
A budget passed by the House of Representatives would slash up to 30 percent of the funding for the National Weather Service, which operates the center in Ewa Beach.
That would result in workers at the center being cut to 32 hours a week and the closing of the forecast office in Honolulu for one month each year, according to the head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
“Clearly the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is going to be impacted big time from this,” said Dan Sobien, union president. “We’re fighting hard and just trying to get the word out.”
Questions about the funding cuts are being revisited in the wake of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Japan on Thursday. The quake and tsunami it spawned are thought to have killed thousands of people, with damage from the tsunami occurring as far away as California.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center played a vital role in getting warnings out about the event, working to calculate and then distribute bulletins across the Pacific. It also worked with Hawaii State Civil Defense to trigger warning sirens and evacuations in possible tsunami inundation areas.
According to the National Weather Service the center was able to get its first warning out 9 minutes after the earthquake struck and that its time estimate for the tsunami hitting the state were fairly accurate. The center's sister operation in Alaska managed to get its warning out for that state and the West Coast in 21 minutes.
“I hope my Republicans colleagues in the House are now aware that there was a horrific earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific,” said Hawaii U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This disaster displays the need to keep the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center fully funded and operational.”
The union says it anticipates a $125 million cut to the National Weather Service’s budget for the remaining six months of the fiscal year. During fiscal year 2010 there was $41 million of funding for the tsunami research and warnings at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the NWS.
NOAA said it had been planning to spend like amounts in the current fiscal year and next. It declined to detail how it would make adjustments to operations should the proposed House budget be adopted.
But Sobien said the agency is looking at closing each of its weather forecast offices for one month out of the year and having work done elsewhere during the furlough period.
But he said a similar plan wouldn’t work for the tsunami center because its around-the-clock mission. Scientists at the center work on models for computing possible tsunami hazards and also monitor a network of buoys around the Pacific Ocean to detect tsunamis. They issue warning guidance and also conduct research.
Work done by the center also helps in creation of inundation and evacuation maps that are found in the front of telephone directories.
Sobien said the funding cuts could translate into a four-day work week for center employees and may mean that only one person would be on duty at all times compared to the current two. He said that could mean trouble if there was a locally generated tsunami when there is little time to get out warnings.
The House budget cuts were protested by Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat who said the center is a vital resource and shouldn’t fall prey to what she called political posturing by the Republicans.
“As we just witnessed, Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means we are at great risk of the threats posed by tsunamis, rapidly rising tides, hurricanes and severe weather patterns – so it’s unfortunate that House Republicans proposed to cut funding to the very agencies that watched over our state and everyone in the Pacific Rim today,” said Hanabusa in a statement that her office issued.
“It is fiscally reckless and endangers the safety of Hawaii’s residents and visitors. I will do everything I can to ensure these vital agencies don’t fall prey to political posturing.”
Sobien said his union had supported a move by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye to get a Senate amendment passed for restoring Weather Service funding to 2010 levels. But he said the amendment failed to get enough votes.
The worker union is continuing to lobby for full funding and has started a Facebook page to enlist support. So far 41,000 people have indicated they like the Protect the National Weather Service page on Facebook.
“Hopefully we can avert this before it goes too far,” Sobien said.
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