Congress is poised to approve a measure that would bolster tsunami warning efforts in Hawaii, including beefing up technology and expanding research into historic mega-quakes that caused giant tidal waves to leave their marks on coastal areas centuries ago.

The Tsunami Warning Education and Research Act died in the U.S. House last year but has been resurrected and passed that chamber in January. It’s now in a key Senate committee and looks to be something that a polarized Congress can actually agree on this year, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says.

“It’s not going to make it on to anyone’s TV commercial but it’s what you expect the government to be doing all along,” Schatz said last week during a meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board.

“Over the long run it will help us be better prepared,” he said, “and it may result in more resources coming to Hawaii.”

tsunami warning sign in Kona

A tsunami warning sign in Kona.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The measure would put in place programs needed to take tsunami warning efforts past simply identifying tsunami impact areas and drawing up of evacuation zones and response plans. That includes more education and training for coastal communities as well as research into tsunami threats posed by earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands and enhancing early-warning systems by upgrading tsunami buoys and even deploying sensors on trans-Pacific undersea cables deep on the ocean floor.

But the $27 million envisioned to fuel the effort annually would still need to be approved separately in a what’s becoming a tightening federal budget situation.

“My view is let’s do the things that are possible.” — Sen. Brian Schatz

Although President Barack Obama has proposed cutting $6 million from the tsunami effort for fiscal year 2016, both the House and Senate want to keep it at $27 million for the coming fiscal year. Schatz is opposing those cuts and seeking to restore the program to at least $26.88 million, its current level.

The bill is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Commerce Committee this week, and Schatz’s office has been working to include language on “paleotsunami” research since scientists discovered last year that a tsunami caused by a mega-quake hit the island of Kauai 500 years ago.

The quake appeared to originate in the Aleutians and scientists are just beginning to try to understand the consequences on Hawaii of an event centered that far north.

Strengthening the geologic data on earthquakes and tsunamis is a key area for Schatz. Ancient mega-quakes have also been found to push tidal waves to the Pacific Northwest and he’d like to see funding to study the “tsunamigenic” potential of subduction zones that can lead to catastrophic events on both sides of the Pacific, including Japan.

Of particular interest to Hawaii is potential research into what happens when high-rises are built in a city in a way that they create canyons that result in water currents that exacerbate the impacts of a tsunami. The work could be especially significant for Waikiki and could result in standards for strengthening buildings, for instance.

Better System for Buoys?

One of the perennial problems the bill seeks to remedy is the unreliability of early-warning buoys that are deployed throughout the Pacific.

According to NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center, as of late January only 27 of the 39 DART buoys were operational. (DART stands for Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis. This map shows the location and status of the buoys at any given time.)

new DART buoy tsunami

New DART-ETD buoys are easier to deploy and maintain.

Courtesy: NOAA Pacific Marine Environment Lab

That gave the system a 69 percent “availability” which is significantly less than the 80 percent average availability standard that Congress has asked for. The reduced status means warnings take longer and encompasses a bigger area, which results in over-warning the public, NOAA says.

The agency plans to begin repairs of the buoys in the spring and hopes to have them all operational by September.

But, as Civil Beat has reported, more technologically advanced buoys are available and being built by a U.S. company. The buoys are easier to fix and deploy, which would cut millions of dollars off the cost of the program. They are being purchased and deployed by other countries but NOAA has resisted, saying the budget doesn’t allow it.

The buoys — known as DART-ETD or Easy To Deploy — are on Congress’ radar and last year Schatz, as a member of a Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing the agency’s budget, got language into a bill that directed NOAA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on replacing or enhancing the current network with the new buoys. The report is expected to be finished in June.

Schatz is hoping to push through an amendment to the bill that would require an 80 percent operability rate and congressional notification in the event of material failure in the system. 

He’s also proposing deploying tsunami sensors on undersea telecommunications cables. That would eliminate the need for ships to drop buoys in the first place as well as spend months at sea repairing and replacing them.

Catching a Bipartisan Wave

The bill is currently in the Senate Commerce Committee — Schatz is a member — and has bipartisan support. Schatz says the committee chair, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, is supportive even though he’s not from a tsunami-prone area.

The bill is expected to be passed out of the committee within the next couple weeks and then fast-tracked through the full Senate and on to Obama.

Schatz says the Republican-controlled Congress is looking for measures that can be passed as a way to demonstrate that GOP leadership can effectively govern. Democrats need to prove that they can, too, he says.

“Part of it is we are not as rotten of a minority as they were.” — Sen. Brian Schatz

Schatz, who took over the Senate seat left open in December 2012 with the death of longtime Sen. Dan Inouye, says for too long many in Congress have been too been focused on trying to get big but politically controversial issues through a deeply divided body.

“I think you still have a political ecology in D.C. driven by pundits and a few politicians who live in this space thinking that every individual negotiation should be aggregated into an impossibly large one. My view is let’s do the things that are possible.”

Now, he sees hope for progress on important issues, even though they might not be things that are at the center of high-profile national debate.

“Part of it is we are not as rotten of a minority as they were,” he said. “Really. We’re clearly capable of utilizing the filibuster and behaving like a minority party which is to criticize the majority party and do your messaging … But in the end we don’t have Ted Cruz and we don’t have our version of the tea party. … So our left flank is actually productive and constructive.”

“I’m hopeful that we are just not reckless like they are.”

About the Author