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In the event of a large tsunami, surging water levels could easily course past two rows of houses, across a flat clearing, and reach an important one-story cinder-block building in Ewa Beach.
Employees in the exposed structure joke about the irony of their situation, which isn’t entirely surprising given that they work in the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Not surprisingly, the center is slated to move around the end of the year, but even the new site is spurring questions about its vulnerabilities in case of a tsunami.
The $153 million state-of-the-art complex that is being built on higher ground on Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, will house the warning center, as well as other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration groups.
But a report released on Monday by a watchdog agency and advocacy group called Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility, warns that the pontoon bridge connecting Ford Island to Oahu could be closed or severely damaged by a hurricane or tsunami.
“In that event, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations operations, such as its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, may be compromised at the moment they are needed most,” the group said.
They fear that an extended bridge closure could strand staff on the island and undermine the organizations work.
A NOAA document drawn up in response to employee questions states that if the bridge fails, the U.S. Navy, which owns Ford Island, will use 150-passenger water taxis to rescue people stranded on the island. The problem is that if water conditions inside the harbor are deemed unsafe, the boats won’t be allowed out.
Local NOAA officials pooh-poohed the report which, they say, rehashes old issues.
Besides, tsunamis have not historically caused large surges in Pearl Harbor because of its small and narrow inlet.
Even the 55-foot tsunami of 1946, that killed 173 people in Hilo, caused less than a 5-foot surge at Pearl Harbor, according to the warning center. That was the worst recorded tsunami to hit Hawaii.
During the 2011 Japan tsunami, the Navy didn’t even evacuate its ships — they just tied them down a little more securely, officials said.
“I think we’ve thought about those things, and there are solutions to pretty much all of those problems,” said Chip McCreery, director of the warning center. “Nothing should really shut us down out there.”
Hawaii typically has several days to prepare for slow-advancing hurricanes, and hours to issue tsunami warnings, McCreery said. That is because the nearest fault known to be capable of generating a major tsunami is 4.5 hours far away at the speed that such waves travel.
And if a tsunami does strike Oahu, any surge would only last for a period of “several hours at most,” McCreery said, adding that there is little reason to prepare for a sustained work interruption at the center.
Even if Hawaii’s tsunami center were to go offline, NOAA’s backup plan calls for a monitoring station in Palmer, Alaska to step in and cover for the station here. (If a disaster incapacitates the center in Alaska, Hawaii’s station will reciprocate.)
“If one goes down, there’s always someone to fill in,” said Steve Gallagher, site manager at the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center, the complex where the tsunami center will soon be located. A total of 600 NOAA employees will share the 5-building complex sited on 35 acres.
NOAA isn’t planning practice drills for boat evacuations due to the “low likelihood” that such actions will be needed, and because such preparations would involve a “risk to employee safety.”
But Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the watchdog advocacy group, actually finds that last analysis alarming, according to his organization’s statement. “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,” he said.
Gallagher, the site manager, confirmed that NOAA has no plans for full-scale, dry-run evacuations of the island involving all workers, but he said his staff will practice simpler monthly drills. “We’re just not going to get 600 people loaded onto boats back and forth. It’s just not practical.”
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