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Tsunami official clarifies coverage after critical report

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A Hawaii-based tsunami warning official acknowledges the findings of a new report that bulletins issued by the Hawaii and Alaska tsunami centers can sometimes appear contradictory.

That’s because the two centers have separate areas of responsibility, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center Deputy Director Stuart Weinstein said yesterday.

The report, requested by Congress and written by the National Research Council, cites different tsunami bulletins issued after a June 2005 earthquake off the California coast.

During that earthquake, the tsunami warning center in Alaska warned the West Coast region that a tsunami was possible. Minutes later, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach reported no warning was necessary in its area of responsibility.

"The problem was, the emergency managers who are on the West Coast saw both bulletins," Weinstein said. "Understandably that caused confusion."

Weinstein said the Hawaii center’s 2005 bulletin advised people to refer to the Alaska center for the relevant data.

"It’s true that in our bulletin, it says this is all regarding our area of responsibility," he said. "But you’re in an emergency situation, and you see a warning, and you might not read the fine print."

The report recommended that the two centers release one message that includes information for all areas under their responsibility.

The centers do not operate as backups for each other as they were originally designed, the report states. This creates an "illusion of redundancy that could prove dangerous and costly."

The National Research Council also said long-term planning should include whether the two centers should release one bulletin, or that the two operations be merged into one center.

"For a tsunami warning center to be effective, it must operate flawlessly, and emergency officials must coordinate seamlessly and communicate clearly," said John Orcutt, chairman of the committee that wrote the report, and a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

Weinstein said the center will take the council’s recommendations under consideration as it goes forward. In the meantime, both centers continue to issue separate bulletins.

The report found many enhancements since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, including an increase of quality and quantity of hazard and evacuation maps, and expansion of networks that indicate the size of tsunamis.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent nonprofit institution that provides science and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.

 

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