CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – The United States now operates 40 tsunami warning buoys, all but a handful in the Pacific Ocean.
Called DART buoys, they connect to pressure sensors on the bottom of the ocean that can accurately track the pressure wave from a tsunami racing at jet speeds across the ocean, and help estimate the risk to coast lines in a tsunami’s path.
Right now, a check of those buoys find that more than a third are not working normally, either not feeding back data or data that’s spotty.
That’s a concern for Jim Mullen, who this month is retiring at the State of Washington’s Director of Emergency Management, part of the state’s military department at Camp Murray near Ft. Lewis. As 65-year-old Mullen gets ready to head into private life, he’s expressing frustration at federal and state budgets critical to maintaining the nation’s emergency management infrastructure.
“We had some tools at our disposal that are at risk right now,” said Mullen, who used the tsunami warning system to determine if the March 11 tsunami that hit northeastern Japan would have enough energy to cause serious damage once it hit the eastern side of the Pacific and the Washington state coast line. It didn’t, and the so-called DART buoys accurately determined that hours in advance.
“It’s a very dicey proposition to have to move people,” said Mullen, as he watched the first live pictures from Japan that evening, wondering if he would have to send people along Washington’s coast, including those living in nursing homes and hospitals, to higher ground.
On Friday the so called budget “sequester” kicks in. If not averted by last minute negotiations between the White House and Congress, some agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration have sounded the alarm about having to furlough air traffic controllers and other cutbacks.
So far the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not been as specific, but in a February 8 letter to Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank wrote: “All told, there would be significant impacts in NOAA's ability to meet its mission to preserve Americans' property, protect lives, prepare for extreme weather events, adapt to a changing world, and to enhance economic prosperity.”
NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.
Mullen says with trouble in the other Washington, the state needs to step up more in financing its own mission. He says it goes beyond the sequester, he points to delays in providing billions to New Jersey, New York and other northeastern states in the wake of last fall’s Superstorm Sandy over politics.
“That's at risk, if this nonsense that's going on in D.C. continues,” said Mullen, who does not plan to remain silent as he heads into private life. “I'll probably keep talking about this to anybody who will listen.”