updated 1/6/2005 9:53:04 PM ET 2005-01-07T02:53:04

Congress will consider a $30 million network of buoys, wave gauges and seismic sensors to warn of tsunamis globally, a plan that would build on U.S. and international efforts to avert another catastrophe.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., on Thursday proposed the United States take responsibility for building a global tsunami warning system and spending $7.5 million a year to maintain it.

Such a system exists only in the Pacific Ocean. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 created the tsunami that devastated parts of southern Asia.

“The death and destruction caused by the South Asian tsunami has exposed a glaring gap in our high-tech age of global connectedness,” Lieberman said. “And that is the absence of a worldwide tsunami detection and warning system that existing technology can provide us at a relatively low cost.”

Lieberman’s bill calls for expanding the Pacific system and adding similar ones in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

NOAA would run proposed system
The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would use up to 50 ocean-based sensors, each costing up to $250,000 to install and $50,000 a year to maintain. Six now exist in the Pacific. NOAA also would have to pay to collect and relay the information from the ocean to satellites to international warning centers. Though tsunamis are rare, Lieberman and other government officials said the potential devastation justified the cost.

“If you had a huge tsunami hitting Florida or New York, or it could go right up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, you would have a major disaster,” said Larry Roeder, who heads the State Department’s Global Disaster Information Network.

GDIN is working on such a design for protecting huge populations in coastal areas. It will be presented to the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Disaster Reduction this month in Kobe, Japan.

Only three years ago the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, run by NOAA, got a half-dozen sensors to transmit tsunami data in the Pacific that could be relayed by satellite to scientists.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the Kenya-based U.N. Environment Program, said Thursday that setting up a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean is a high priority, especially to protect small island nations. He said several countries were asking for U.N. help to study how to do it.

“Let us hope that this spirit of solidarity with the victims and their families can be carried on beyond this tragedy, so that the existing and emerging environmental threats ... can also be tackled,” Toepfer said.

Australian scientists are designing an Indian Ocean warning system for about $20 million. About 30 seismographs would detect earthquakes, and 10 tidal gauges and six special buoys would provide deep-ocean assessment and tsunami reporting.

Communications links not included
None of the systems proposed, including Lieberman’s, accounts for a more costly factor — communications links to warn people in coastal areas before giant waves arrive.

Commerce Secretary nominee Carlos Gutierrez said at his Senate confirmation hearing this week that better analysis and prediction of weather and maritime hazards will be a priority.

Lieberman said he didn’t know how long building a global tsunami warning system would take.

Had such a system been in place in the Indian Ocean, NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher says, thousands of lives might have been spared.

Six tsunami buoys are connected to pressure recorders 20,000 feet below on the ocean floor in the Pacific, and Lautenbacher wants to add 15 more in that ocean. However, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said it would take seven years to do just that.

“That is not acceptable with what is happening out there,” Inouye told Gutierrez. “We have the technology, we have the system in place. All we need is the commitment to carry this out.”

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