Warning: Tsunami detection system could lose funding

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KAILUA-KONA — A tsunami detection system comprised of dozens of seafloor sensors around the globe and vital to Hawaii is in peril.


KAILUA-KONA — A tsunami detection system comprised of dozens of seafloor sensors around the globe and vital to Hawaii is in peril.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget for next fiscal year would slash almost all of the $12 million in annual funding supplied to support the detection system, completed in 2008. It also would cut $6 million in federal grants awarded to states to help pay for preparedness drills, as well as the composition of flood maps and evacuation strategies.

Because of Hawaii’s central location in the Pacific Ocean, it is essentially besieged on all sides by tsunami threats — most of which would be difficult to gauge in any meaningful way without the detection system, said Kevin Richards, natural hazards officer with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

But with the detection system informing state-coordinated email and textual alert efforts, Hawaii could absorb even a massive tsunami originating in the Aleutian Islands without the loss of human life.

Richards explained such an event would probably reach the state’s shores within three to four hours and might require evacuation efforts three times more extensive than the average tsunami threat.

“The (system alerts us) within three minutes if we have a wave heading our way,” Richards said about the sensors, which measure waves as they pass by in deep waters. “Within 10 minutes, they can tell you where it’s going to impact and how far, how much. Just think what we can do in three hours. We can evacuate an entire coast.”

If the detection system is defunded, then its staffing and the monitoring the staff does would decrease significantly. Sensors and the buoys to which they’re connected, which communicate with satellites to disperse relevant information about the size, direction and timing of tsunami threats, would soon fall into disrepair.

A report by the Los Angeles Times this week noted a timeline of two years before lack of maintenance would render the system useless.

“Long before two years it’ll start having an affect on what we know, when we know and what we can do with the time given us,” Richards said.

He added if the system were to fall out of commission, the only option for monitoring tsunami threats would be a reversion to tidal gauges — a system used in the 1960s during Hawaii’s last deadly tsunami.

Richards described tidal gauges as inaccurate, saying they can’t determine how big a wave is, where it’s heading, or when, just that a wave exists. Such a system puts decision makers in a difficult place — evacuate and risk wasting financial resources, or don’t evacuate and risk lives.

Hawaii County initiated an evacuation in 2010 based on a tsunami threat identified by the detection system that didn’t hit the island. Evacuation efforts cost the county about $275,000, mostly in overtime pay for county workers.

The example showed the detection system as it existed wasn’t perfect. But the following year, the system proved its value.

Hawaii suffered zero casualties after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami event off the coast of Japan sent waves slamming into Big Island shores, causing extensive damage and resulting in the condemnation of Kailua Pier.

In its report, the L.A. Times referenced a written assertion by the Trump administration that the choice to defund the tsunami detection system is part of a move to streamline efficiency at a federal level in an effort to prioritize national security.

Some local response via digital media to the L.A. Times article was supportive of the administration’s efforts to defund the detection system. Supporters characterized it as fiscally responsible, saying maintenance of the system should fall to states such as Hawaii, Alaska and California. Richards disagreed, saying that 29 U.S. states and all territories benefit from tsunami detection.


“I don’t think that’s a good stance to take,” Richards said. “We’re not an isolated group taking more than our share. And it’s not a lot of money.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.