The arrival of a tsunami on the West Coast revives a long-standing debate within the National Weather Service: What happens if the country's only two tsunami centers are wiped out?
Both centers are located in the Pacific region -- one in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and one in Palmer, Alaska. They calculate everything from the possible size of a tsunami to the areas it might hit, providing local authorities with the information necessary for evacuations and warnings.
But with both located in the same general region of the world, they could conceivably be damaged or destroyed by the same event. For example, the Alaskan Tsunami Alert Center could suffer from an earthquake that sends a tsunami to Hawaii and the tsunami center there.
"The fact that for something as devastating as a tsunami we don't have multiple layers of backup, I think is an injustice to American taxpayers," said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. "This tsunami certainly illustrates that you just can't be safe enough."
Sobien and others have called in recent years for a third center to be placed in the Caribbean, where earthquakes and tsunamis are not as common but can be just as deadly. In 1918, for example, Puerto Rico suffered from an earthquake and tsunami that killed dozens of people and caused millions of dollars of damage. Last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti, meanwhile, triggered numerous tsunami warnings.
A NOAA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a new tsunami center could soon be built in Puerto Rico; the island's governor, Luis Fortuño, has offered to contribute $6 million for the construction of a facility at the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus. Congress would have to provide another $6 million for construction, plus the funding for additional employees.
Sobien said the cost was worth it: Not only is the area vulnerable to seismic activity, its warmer temperatures mean more people spend time on Atlantic beaches and coasts.
"The cultures are so much different there than in Alaska and Hawaii," he said, later adding: "The populations are more vulnerable."
In a letter last June to President Obama, Fortuño pointed to a recent tsunami and earthquake alert exercise that revealed that the Alaskan Tsunami Alert Center took five minutes to advise of the threat. That delay, he wrote, could mean lost lives.
"In the past several months, we have witnessed the deadly effects of seismic activity in the Caribbean and Pacific," Fortuño wrote in the letter, according to the Puerto Rico Daily Sun. "The earthquake and tsunami which struck Haiti took the lives of millions and caused millions of dollars in catastrophic damages. We must prepare for any future tsunamis by adopting necessary and convenient means to promote awareness along the eastern coast of the United States and the Caribbean."
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