WASHINGTON – Caribbean and Atlantic coastlines — not just the Indian Ocean's tsunami-ravaged shores — would benefit from a tsunami warning system (search) like the one in the Pacific, says the chief of the U.S. weather research agency.
In the Atlantic, the chances of a major earthquake like the one that caused the tsunamis last weekend "are small, but they're not zero," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (search) chief Conrad C. Lautenbacher said Thursday.
"There is the potential of tsunami damage" in the Caribbean, he added, "and we believe that (warning) coverage should be extended to those areas as well."
In the past 150 years, the Caribbean has had more than 50 tsunamis and the Atlantic more than 30, about half off the U.S. and Canadian coasts but none since 1964, NOAA figures show.
The current tsunami warning system links 26 Pacific Ocean nations. If it had been expanded to the Indian Ocean (search) coastal countries, NOAA might have been able to warn them, Lautenbacher said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Among the 11 nations affected, only Indonesia received any warning from NOAA, and then only indirectly through Australia. After reports of casualties in his country, a Sri Lankan Navy commander called NOAA's Hawaii warning center to ask about the potential for more tsunamis. The U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka also called the center asking to be notified of any big aftershocks.
"The system is set up for the Pacific, and it is resourced and it is staffed to operate for the Pacific. It is not resourced or staffed to do the world," said Lautenbacher, the Commerce Department's oceans and atmosphere undersecretary and a retired Navy vice admiral.
Lautenbacher said his staff fulfilled its responsibilities warning 26 Pacific countries. "They did what they thought at the time were the most prudent things to do," he said.
The agency lacked the phone numbers and staff to alert more than Australia and Indonesia, part of the Pacific warning system, because the Indian Ocean countries have no such system, he said.
The Pacific system tries to predict where tsunamis will strike up to a half-day in advance, using earthquake seismic sensors, tidal gauges and buoys attached to instruments on the ocean floor that measure small changes in pressure. There are no such buoys and few tidal gauges in the Indian Ocean. Among the countries devastated by tsunamis, only Thailand had any warning system, but India now plans to install one.
Some scientists had urged both the Clinton and Bush administrations to create a tsunami warning system in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, but they say nothing much happened.
"One option we explored as recently as a few months ago was to ask for money to have the seismic network at the university here become a 24-hour operation," University of Puerto Rico oceanographer Aurelio Mercado-Irizarry said Thursday from Mayaguez. "But again there is no money."
"Based on the magnitude of what happened in the Indian Ocean, I think something must be done, but at what level and what expense is the question," Mercado-Irizarry said.
Lautenbacher might be called to testify about the U.S. response to the tsunamis — and what can be done to warn the Caribbean and Atlantic regions — before the Senate Commerce Committee's oceans, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee.
"The fact that the potential danger rose to the level of prompting a swift warning to two nations, while others could be faced with a potentially devastating impact, raises serious questions," the subcommittee chair, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote Lautenbacher.
Fifteen minutes after Sunday's quake near Sumatra, NOAA fired off a bulletin from Hawaii to 26 Pacific nations that now make up the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System, alerting them of the quake but saying they faced no threat of a tsunami.
Fifty minutes later, the U.S. agency upgraded the severity of the quake and again said there was no tsunami threat in the Pacific, but identified the possibility of a tsunami near the quake's epicenter in the Indian Ocean.
After nearly another half-hour, NOAA contacted emergency officials in Australia, knowing they would quickly contact their counterparts in Indonesia. It wasn't until 21/2 hours after the quake that NOAA officials learned from Internet news reports that a destructive tsunami had hit Sri Lanka.