Maria Cantwell

Senate Response to the Tsunami Disaster - Jan. 4, 2005

Maria Cantwell
January 04, 2005— Washington D.C.
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Mr. President, today the Senate expresses its condolences over the recent tsunami disaster. Like most Americans, I watched in horror over the holidays as a tsunami battered thousands of miles of coastline across South Asia and Africa. The damage left in the wake of this disaster is almost overwhelming, and I feel a sense of personal and professional obligation to do whatever can be done to help those in need.

Though the grim reports have varied in the days following this disaster, it is becoming clear that nearly 150,000 people have already lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands of others are in grave jeopardy because of the damage inflicted by the tsunami. Still more families are searching for loved ones, hoping for any news regarding their family members' whereabouts.

In trying to guide a humanitarian effort through the aftermath of this tragedy, the United States and the larger international community must help these countries face longer term obstacles of disease, the destruction of basic infrastructure, complete damage to coastal economies and other fundamental hardship. America has itself been the victim of great tragedies such as this, and indeed it appears that thousands of Americans living or traveling in South Asia and Africa have themselves been affected by this horrible natural disaster.

My heart goes out to all these victims of the tsunami. It is time for the world, particularly those nations that are most fortunate such as the United States, to move rapidly with a relief and recovery effort that is worthy of the size of this tragedy.

I am encouraged that our government, in cooperation with private sector charities and the business community, has now begun to focus on what can be done to help the affected countries. This tragedy provides America with an opportunity to show that we can lead the world, not just when it is our military that is needed, but when we can offer our generosity and expertise for a massive humanitarian effort. So many nations affected by this tragedy are looking to America for help and we have an opportunity to provide the world our leadership. In addition to it being the right thing to do, it is clearly in America 's national interest to be a leader in helping these countries to recover.

In this spirit, I wholeheartedly support the Administration's pledge of $350 million to the relief effort. I also commend the involvement of former Presidents Clinton and Bush in helping to organize a private relief effort. I would also like to commend the work being done by our private sector, particularly by non-governmental organizations and the business community, to help those in need. This charitable work is quintessentially American, and these efforts are something for which we can all be proud.

Mr. President, I also want to share with my colleagues that we should be aware that the generosity of the American people in response to this disaster extends to the knowledge we have to share with the world regarding monitoring and reporting of oceanic and climatic events.

There is important research and monitoring already being done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on tsunami events, work that involves the University of Washington in my state. Scientists are learning how better to monitor patterns or impending developments in our oceans so we can be prepared for future possible events. We do not always focus on the good work being done by NOAA, until something tragic like this tsunami occurs. Congress has an obligation to people on our coasts to fund NOAA and see that it can do its job well, and we should work to fulfill that obligation.

In the United States, NOAA's National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska. In the event of a tsunami, the Centers will issue local tsunami advisories to the Emergency Managers Office of each potentially affected state. The decision to evacuate a coastal area rests with each responsible EM.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that the current U.S. network consists of six deep-sea sensors in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and near the equator off the coast of Peru. In addition to the six tsunami buoys, the warning system takes advantage of existing tidal monitoring stations and USGS seismic monitoring and reporting capabilities. The NOAA official in charge of the system described the current configuration as the "bare minimum" needed for adequate warning. There are plans to expand the system to 20 tsunami buoys in the next five years, 10 of which will be placed in the Aleutian Islands. NOAA is estimating one-time costs of $8.7 million and recurring costs of $8.5 million to enhance the current system.

As I mentioned, NOAA also runs a Tsunami Research Program out of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. The objective of Tsunami Research Program is to improve warning guidance, hazard assessment, and implementation planning. The Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, a partnership between NOAA and UW, has also worked with the Tsunami Research Program on hazard assessment modeling.

PMEL has also developed instruments it has named tsunameters. With six deployed in middle of the Pacific since 2001 in waters 2.5 to 4 miles deep, the tsunameters can detect the perturbations in water pressure as a tsunami passes above. When it detects something, it sends a signal by sound waves to a buoy on the surface. The signal is relayed to a satellite and then back to earth to tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska, a process that takes only two minutes.

No significant tsunamis have yet occurred in the Pacific for the tsunameters to detect, but they have prevented a false alarm. In November 2003, a magnitude 7.8 undersea earthquake occurred near the Aleutian Islands, spurring officials to issue a tsunami warning. When the wave passed over a tsunameter, they saw it was small and canceled the warning.

In conclusion, Mr. President, I again want to express my condolences and those of Washingtonians to those who have lost family members in this tragedy. The Senate should do all it can to help all those who face a long and difficult cleanup.