House Budget Cuts Pacific Tsunami Warning Center Funding
March 31, 2011 • 6:45AM

The budget passed by the House of Representatives would slash up to 30 percent of the funding of the National Weather Service, which operates the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

Testifying on March 17 before the House Science and Technology Committee, the Obama Administration's Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke, said that the bill would reduce the funding of the early tsunami warning system by 16%. That would result in workers at the center being cut to 32 hours a week and the closing of the forecast office in Honolulu for one month each year, according to the head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

According to the National Weather Service, the center was able to get its first warning out 9 minutes after the earthquake struck, and its time estimates for the tsunami hitting the state were fairly accurate. The center's sister operation in Alaska managed to get its warning out for that state and the West Coast in 21 minutes.

In comparison, the early warning system in Japan generated a warning within 3 minutes. So, if anything, the current system in the US has to be drastically improved.

Dan Sobien, the National Weather Service Employees Organization president, said the funding cuts could translate into a four-day work week for center employees and may mean that only one person would be on duty at all times, half the current staffing level. That could mean trouble, he said, if there were a locally generated tsunami, when there is little time to get out warnings.

Recently, an air controller fell asleep at Reagan National Airport, due to similar understaffing. Two planes were forced to land without guidance. Not issuing a tsunami warning, should the one person on duty at the Pacific Tusnami Warning Center fall asleep, is too expensive in real terms.