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In Disaster's Wake, Tsunami Warning Centers Gain Strength

Alaska and Hawaii are increasing staff to respond more quickly to big earthquakes, and the potentially deadly waves they might generate.

January 01, 2006|Jeannette J. Lee | Associated Press Writer

PALMER, Alaska — When news of a big earthquake hits in the middle of the night, it takes geophysicist Bruce Turner five minutes to fumble for his beeper, throw on a coat, scrape ice off his car windshield, drive a mile to work and transmit a tsunami alert from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

These few minutes, essential to communities in a tsunami's path, will no longer be wasted on commuting when the center goes to round-the-clock staffing in April.

Congress set aside funds in May that will allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to begin 24-hour staffing, seven days a week, at the nation's two tsunami warning centers, here and at Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

The federal government allocated the $24 million in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Dec. 26, 2004, killing about 223,000 people in 11 countries.

The Alaska warning center is currently open on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which means that if an earthquake strikes while scientists are at home, they have to drive to the center before issuing a tsunami alert, director Paul Whitmore said.

Earthquake alerts roust scientists from bed several times a week; all staff members are required to live no more than five minutes from work so that they can respond quickly.

The Alaska center registers about 400 to 500 earthquake alarms per year from around the world and lets safety officials know whether those temblors could displace enough water to trigger a dangerous tsunami. After a potentially tsunami-producing earthquake exceeding magnitude 7.0, scientists issue a warning within 10 minutes, the center's website says.

Starting in April a minimum of two people will be inside the center in Palmer at all times. The center, which plans to have 15 employees instead of the 6.5 it has now, has been scrambling since August to train the new staff members.

Aside from overseeing its home state, the West Coast and British Columbia, the center's area of responsibility has expanded to include the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast.

"It has been tumultuous here," said Turner, who has worked at the Alaska warning center and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii for 23 years.

In Hawaii, scientists live in a cluster of homes on the parched plain of Ewa Beach on the island of Oahu, about 500 feet from the Pacific center. It takes on-call staffers about two minutes to run or bike to the office after their beepers sound, said Stuart Weinstein, the center's assistant director.

The Hawaii center also is going round-the-clock this spring. Since May, it has increased its staff from eight people to 13 and still needs to fill two more spots.

Its oversight has expanded beyond the Pacific basin to the Caribbean. And the center is working with the Japan Meteorological Agency to monitor the Indian Ocean until a warning system is installed in the region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will spend most of the federal money on 39 buoys with pressure recorders anchored to the sea floor that can detect tsunamis of less than a half-inch in height. Even tsunami waves that are only a half-inch high in deep mid-ocean can become towering surges of water as they reach shallower coastal areas.

The buoys relay information to tsunami warning centers via satellite. The federal agency plans to add more buoys, increasing the number in the Pacific Ocean to 32 from the current 10 and putting seven in the Atlantic, which has none, by 2007.

But improved warning systems won't make a difference unless people know where to seek shelter, a tsunami expert said.

"If we're talking about saving lives, we're really talking about preparing local communities," said Harry Yeh, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Oregon State University.

Even before the disaster in the Indian Ocean, scientists from the Palmer center were helping tsunami and earthquake-prone communities in Alaska outline clear and well-publicized evacuation plans.

Longtime residents of the nation's most seismically active state are familiar with proper earthquake and tsunami protocol. But newcomers and tens of thousands of summer tourists often aren't aware of the dangers.

"Unless you've been through it, you don't really think about it," said Jennifer Austin of Seward, Alaska, who was 8 when a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the south-central portion of the state on March 27, 1964.

The Good Friday quake was the largest recorded in North America and still keeps longtime Alaskans on guard. The temblor and ensuing tsunami killed 115 people in Alaska.

"The older people who lived through the 1964 earthquake are more aware," said Austin, Seward's assistant fire chief.

Alaska's curving southern shoreline traces a volatile subduction zone along two tectonic plates. Volcanic eruptions and numerous earthquakes, most of them small, shake the southern section of the state as the Pacific plate slides beneath the North American plate at a rate of several centimeters per year.

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