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GAO Report on Tsunamis: Is the U.S. Prepared?

The Government Accountability Office identifies states and territories most susceptible to tsunamis and evaluated federal, state and local preparedness in a new report.

The GAO concluded that much needs to be done before coastal communities are equipped to deal with a potential disaster. Questions concerning U.S. readiness for a tsunami were raised after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people.

In 2005, Congress gave $17 million to fund detection and warning efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program.

Report Highlights

U.S. Coastal Areas With Greatest Tsunami Risk

NOAA determined the Pacific coast states of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have the greatest tsunami risk. Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have the greatest tsunami hazard. The East and Gulf coasts are relatively low-hazard areas.

Limited information is available about potential impacts to high-hazard areas. Standardized software to estimate tsunami damage does not exist, and many states are slow to create costly inundation maps to estimate damage.

Effectiveness of Tsunami Warning System

NOAA's National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers that submit tsunami warning messages to NWS forecast offices and state emergency management centers. From there, the NWS offices transmit a warning over the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts continuous weather information.

Federal warning centers can quickly detect potential tsunamis and issue warnings; however, only a limited number of areas are set-up to receive those warnings.

Since 1982, 16 tsunami warnings have been issued, but none was followed by a destructive tsunami on U.S. shores. Emergency Management officials fear people will not take future warnings seriously.

Community Preparedness

Planning in at-risk communities varies. All locations have multiple warning mechanisms in place, but potential problems, such as telephone-line disruption, could hinder a necessary warning.

Educational efforts are not consistently implemented. Only two states include tsunami curricula in schools, but many coastal communities post tsunami evacuation signs and distribute tsunami evacuation maps. Officials attributed lack of tsunami education to more pressing disasters, such as wildfires, and to limited funding.

Few communities participate in NOAA's voluntary preparedness program, which educates citizens on tsunami hazards, develops community tsunami hazard plans and establishes local warning systems, because tsunami threats are perceived to be low.

NOAA's Long-Range Plans

The GAO determined NOAA needs to establish long-term goals for its tsunami preparedeness program and to assess whether its efforts are successful.

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Danielle Trusso