- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

Tsunami warning systems for West Coast states are ineffective and several local agencies are not prepared for such a disaster, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released yesterday.

Although the National Weather Service issues timely warnings, alert systems cannot transmit to some coastal areas, the report said.

“This shortcoming was highlighted in June 2005, when an actual tsunami warning for the west coast was issued but signal problems prevented the warning from reaching portions of the coasts of Washington and Oregon,” the report said.

In addition, the report said, all 16 warnings issued since 1982 have been false, which has created an apathetic public.

Parts of Northern California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii and the territories of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico “face the greatest tsunami hazard,” while the Gulf Coast is “relatively low-hazard,” the report said.

The GAO recommends updated maps and more community participation in the National Weather Service’s TsunamiReady program. Participation is low “because of community perceptions of a low tsunami threat and perceived high cost versus benefit.”

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 killed nearly 250,000 people in 13 countries. The disaster raised concerns about U.S. vulnerability and the ability of communities to detect and warn of an approaching killer wave.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service, has agreed to GAO recommendations such as reducing the number of false alarms, periodic testing of the warning system, encouraging high-risk communities to participate in TsunamiReady, and developing mapping software with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government organizations.

Homeland Security Department officials, however, say FEMA does not have the “funding or the staff resources” to assist NOAA.

The West Coast has suffered the most destruction from tsunamis because of Pacific earthquakes in the South America and Aleutian regions. In 1960, an earthquake in Chile generated a tsunami that caused more than $1 million in damage in California. A 1964 earthquake in Alaska created a tsunami that killed 12 in the San Francisco Bay area and caused $15 million in destruction. Within two minutes of that earthquake, more than 100 Alaskans were killed.

Distant earthquakes have created tsunamis that have hit Oregon and Washington, but it is the 750-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone 50 to 100 miles off the coast of these states that has scientists worried.

“Geologic and other records from a Cascadia earthquake in 1700 suggest that the fault could generate a tsunami wave of up to 30 feet that would likely reach the Oregon coast in 15 to 30 minutes, raising concerns of a catastrophic future event,” the report said.

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