Tsunami warning system is restored

Mar. 18—The system of ocean buoys that helps warn Hawaii and the rest of the nation about tsunamis is back working after being knocked out of commission for nearly a week.

"The buoy data has been restored, " National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said in an email Wednesday.

The buoy network outage occurred March 9 after a water pipe burst at the agency's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. The leak caused flooding throughout the first seven floors of the building, including the floor where the buoy data is processed, requiring the data center to be powered off, Buchanan said.

That left the ocean monitors situated in strategic areas around the world—including one right off Hawaii—unable to send vital information to the country's two tsunami warning centers, including the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

The buoy data from the National Oceanic &Atmospheric Administration's Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART ) system allows forecasters to more accurately pinpoint the areas under threat, wave arrival times and the size of the tsunami, officials said.

Each DART buoy sends acoustic signals from a transmitter anchored on the sea floor to a surface buoy. As a tsunami moves across the ocean, the DART reports bottom pressure changes in the entire column of water above.

NOAA describes the DART data as critical to early detection of tsunamis and real-time forecasts.

"The total loss of the DART network seriously compromises the effectiveness of our tsunami public safety net, where every second of advance warning saves lives, " said Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of the watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a news release Wednesday.

The shutdown occurred as Japan commemorated the 10-year anniversary of a tsunami that killed thousands of people. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, generated the Tohoku tsunami that not only destroyed communities but led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The week before the buoy data shutdown, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sent out alerts for three tsunamis generated by earthquakes in the South Pacific all within a single day.

One of the earthquakes, on March 4, prompted the issuance of a tsunami watch in Hawaii, a move that left officials here wondering how vulnerable the islands were. The tsunami watch was canceled three hours after it was issued.

Buchanan insisted the agency's ability to issue tsunami warnings and forecasts was not significantly affected by the outage, as tsunami forecasters in Hawaii and Alaska usually issue initial tsunami watches, warnings, and advisories based on the seismic event.

She said NOAA staff members created a workaround that restarted transmission of buoy data to tsunami centers worldwide via the World Meteorological Organization's Global Telecommunications system.

"DART data has been available to tsunami forecasters for the past three days, and was restored to our National Data Buoy Center public website today, " she said Wednesday.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group also accused the agency of downplaying the outage. It made public employee communications that indicated a key tsunami program official had urged employees to avoid discussing the problem on social media.

"Rather than sweep this debacle under the rug, Congress should begin a major review of NOAA's operational capacity, " Ruch said.