"If they are going to move, you would hope they would move to a place where the hazard is less. Ford Island isn't that. But Ford Island isn't bad."

Gerard Fryer
UH-Manoa tsunami researcher

This is a computer-generated design of a consolidated facility on Ford Island for NOAA's Pacific Region operations.

Doubts raised on
tsunami center’s move


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

» The third floor of a planned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building will be 26 feet above sea level. In a Page A1 article Sunday, NOAA administrator Jeff LaDouce incorrectly stated that the lowest point on the building would be 26 feet above sea level.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at corrections@starbulletin.com.

There have long been concerns about the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center being on the border of a tsunami inundation zone only two blocks from the beach.

But scientists say the same worries about danger from a seismic wave won't go away if plans to move the center to Ford Island in Pearl Harbor surge ahead. It may also interfere with their ability to give adequate warning in the event of a tsunami.

"I don't think any of us would object to moving the center to higher ground," said Barry Hirshon, a geophysicist who works at the warning center and the union shop steward for the National Weather Service Employees Organization at the tsunami center.

Hirshon said moving the tsunami warning center to Ford Island is not well thought-out.

Jeff LaDouce, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service Pacific, disagrees.

LaDouce said the site, on the north side of the island near the USS Utah Memorial, is safer than Ewa Beach.

"There's not a tsunami inundation threat," LaDouce said, noting that the water level in Pearl Harbor has not risen more than a foot or so in previous tsunami episodes.

He added that the lowest point in the new $242 million building will be 26 feet above sea level and the tsunami warning center will likely be on the third floor of the building.

Tsunami scientists at the University of Hawaii-Manoa said despite the proximity to the ocean, neither site is in much danger from a tidal wave.

Gerard Fryer, a UH-Manoa tsunami researcher, said it is unlikely a tsunami would be generated south of Oahu, since there are no historical records of tsunamis in that area.

But if a tsunami were generated from the south, perhaps Tonga or off the west coast of the Big Island, both sites would be in equal danger.

"If they are going to move, you would hope they would move to a place where the hazard is less. Ford Island isn't that. But Ford Island isn't bad," Fryer said.

Ed Teixeira, the vice director of civil defense for the state, said he sees pros and cons in the move. He understands the value in combining NOAA operations in one central location. But also wants to see more study of the issue.

"We really need to think about this one," Teixeira said.

Hirshon said the center needs to be able to survive a tsunami to issue bulletins even after the initial wave.

LaDouce said NOAA looked at moving the warning center to higher ground, perhaps at UH-Manoa, where they could work with tsunami researchers and graduate students. But there isn't enough room at Manoa for the center.

Hirshon has other concerns about the move, including a change in the way the center is staffed, access to seismographs and satellites that provide earthquake data to the center, and what will happen to the center during the transition to the new facility.

Currently, five scientists live on the grounds of the Tsunami Warning Center and a number of scientists can respond to an earthquake within 90 seconds by walking or biking from their homes.

"We will lose a critical mass of people nearby," Hirshon said.

LaDouce said the agency wants to hire more tsunami scientists and staff the center with at least two workers 24 hours a day.

He said 24/7 staffing should actually increase the efficiency of the center.

The Ewa Beach location also has seismographs and satellite receivers directly connected to the tsunami warning center. Hirshon is worried that moving the center from the satellites and seismograph could cut the center off from necessary data if the Internet or phone lines go down.

LaDouce said they are studying whether the satellites and seismographs can be moved to Ford Island. If instruments can't be moved, he said there will be multiple and more modern communications at the new facility.

When it is finished sometime in 2010, the 400,000-square-foot NOAA Pacific Region Center project will consolidate more than 400 NOAA employees and 18 offices that are now scattered throughout Oahu. The facility will include piers for NOAA ships.

LaDouce said the tsunami warning center will not be shut down during the transition to the new facility and the center will not move until all the bugs are worked out.

"There's too much at stake in lives and property," LaDouce said. "It will be my intention to be able to put in place a full operating system."

Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

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