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U.S. tsunami centers switch to 24/7 schedule

The United States' tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii are gearing up for round-the-clock operations that will watch a wider area of the world's oceans.
Bruce Turner, a geophysicist and assistant director of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, in Palmer, Alaska, talks about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and where the earthquake showed up on their map.Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When word of a big earthquake comes in the middle of the night, geophysicist Bruce Turner takes five minutes to fumble for his beeper, throw on a coat, scrape the ice off his windshield, drive a mile to work and transmit a tsunami alert.

Those few minutes will no longer be wasted on commuting when the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center goes to round-the-clock staffing in April.

A portion of $24 million appropriated by Congress in May to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will allow 24-hour staffing, seven days a week, at the nation’s two tsunami warning centers, here and at Ewa Beach, Hawaii — near areas that have both experienced deadly tsunamis.

The government allocated the money in response to the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004. At least 216,000 people were killed or are missing in 11 Indian Ocean countries.

The federally mandated 24-hour staffing will shave off the few minutes it might take scientists to get to the center to issue an alert, said Paul Whitmore, director of the warning center in Alaska.

“Rather than responding from dead sleep, we’ll already have people there,” Whitmore said. “We’re definitely better off this way.”

Several alerts a week
Earthquake alerts roust scientists from bed several times a week, and all staff members are required to live within five minutes from work. Tsunamis can race across oceans at jetliner speed, meaning coastal communities near an earthquake’s epicenter must be prepared to evacuate within minutes.

The Alaska center registers about 400 to 500 earthquake alarms per year from around the world and lets officials know whether those quakes could displace enough water to trigger a dangerous tsunami.

Starting in April, at least two people will be in the center in Palmer, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Anchorage, at all times. It is now open from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, Alaska time.

The staff will be increased from 6½ positions to 15 to cover the additional hours. Aside from overseeing Alaska, the U.S. West Coast and British Columbia, the center will now be responsible for the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast, too.

Two-minute turnaround in Hawaii
In Hawaii, scientists live on Oahu’s Ewa Beach, about 500 feet (150 meters) from the Pacific center. It takes staffers about two minutes to get to the office, said Stuart Weinstein, the center’s assistant director.

The Hawaii center also will go round-the-clock this spring or summer. Since May, it has increased its staff from eight people to 13 and still needs to fill two spots.

Its responsibility also has branched out from the Pacific basin to include the Caribbean. And it is working with Japan to monitor the Indian Ocean until a warning system is installed in that region.

39 sensor stations
NOAA will spend most of the federal money on 39 buoys with pressure recorders anchored to the sea floor that can detect tsunamis. The buoys relay information to warning centers via satellite. NOAA plans to raise the number of buoys in the Pacific Ocean to 32 from 10 and add seven in the Atlantic, which has none, by 2007.

Even before the Indian Ocean disaster, scientists in Palmer were helping vulnerable communities in Alaska set up evacuation plans.

A magnitude-9.2 earthquake shook Alaska on Good Friday in 1964 — the biggest quake ever recorded in North America. It and the ensuing tsunami killed 115 people in Alaska. The waves also killed 16 people in California.

And in 1946, a tsunami spawned by an Alaskan quake killed 159 people in Hilo, Hawaii, about 3,000 miles away.