In the Caribbean, locals know the tsunami as el peligro olvidado: the forgotten danger.
The nickname reflects a truth that Bill Proenza, the southern regional director of the National Weather Service, has been studying for years. Tsunamis in the Atlantic Ocean only occur every 20 years or so, he said, but they can be just as deadly as the one that hit Japan last week.
"That's exactly what we're facing: It's the forgotten danger. Here we are in the 21st century, and I've had people ask, 'Aren't we safer now?'" Proenza said. "It isn't that the science isn't there helping, it's the fact that we have more people living in coastal areas. We have more people with recreational time, and that means more people in the water."
As Japan reels from an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and its aftermath, attention has turned to the funding and quality of the United States' warning system. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) issued a statement last week calling the event a "wakeup call" for lawmakers looking to cut funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NWS.
For Proenza and other NWS officials, the event highlights the need for a third tsunami center in Puerto Rico. Right now, the United States has two centers in the Pacific region -- one in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and one in Palmer, Alaska.
NOAA has been considering a tsunami warning center in Puerto Rico in recent months, and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño (R) has offered $6 million toward the construction of a facility at the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus. But NOAA would have to commit to staffing the center and contributing an additional $6 million for its construction.
Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said last week that the center was needed to ensure "multiple layers of backup" in case a single Pacific Rim event damaged both the Hawaii and Alaska centers. Proenza said a center could also mean quicker warnings for an area vulnerable to "short fuse" tsunamis that can be detected only 10 to 15 minutes before they hit.
The agency has begun a "phased" approach to building the center, according to Proenza. But he said the center should be built more quickly; one tsunami could result in thousands of deaths.
In fact, Proenza and Florida Institute of Technology professor George Maul recently finished a report finding that the Caribbean has had six times more tsunami-caused deaths in the past 168 years than Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California combined.
The last serious tsunami in the area was in 1946, when almost 1,800 people were killed in the Dominican Republic. But the coastal areas were underdeveloped at the time; today, that number would be much higher, thanks to tourism and a larger population, Proenza said.
"It's inevitable. It's going to happen. It's just where and when," Proenza said. "Even though they may have more earthquakes in the Pacific Rim, when a tsunami occurs in the Caribbean, it yields more loss of life."
Relocation of tsunami center challenged
Meanwhile, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called on NOAA today to change its plans to move its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, to an island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
In a news release, PEER said the Navy was under orders to evacuate the island during a tsunami warning and close the only bridge connecting it to Oahu's main island. PEER claims the island is in a high-risk area for tsunamis; NOAA claims the likelihood of disruption is low.
"This is a case of NOAA putting its bureaucratic politics above public safety," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in the release. "It is disturbing that NOAA will not defend the accuracy of the report it is relying upon to make a very important decision affecting tsunami preparedness."
NOAA spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said the agency plans to consolidate several Oahu offices into a Ford Island complex as a "cost-saving" measure. Hawaii's tsunami center is currently located in an "inundation zone," she said, and the new complex would provide space on the top floor of a tall building.
PEER challenged NOAA's report on the tsunami risk for the island in 2009. NOAA responded last year that it had undergone adequate review.