Senate Passes Tsunami Safety Legislation, Sends Proposal to President for Signature

Cantwell-backed legislation will improve tsunami warning and evacuation system, help protect coastal and Puget Sound communities in Washington

WASHINGTON, DC – Friday, the Senate approved a broad tsunami safety package championed by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that will make significant improvements to our nation’s tsunami warning and mitigation system. Because the bill passed the House early Thursday, the measure is now headed to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

“Nearly 300,000 Washingtonians live in the tsunami danger zone, which includes areas along the coast and Puget Sound,” said Cantwell. “Better, more-reliable detection and warning systems are critical for those who live and work along our coasts, and I’ll continue working to deliver more resources to our coastal communities to make sure they remain safe and prepared.”

The Tsunami Preparedness Act, passed by Congress Friday, authorizes $25 million in 2008, increasing to $29 million by 2012, for tsunami preparedness. The legislation will greatly improve the existing Pacific tsunami detection and warning system, as well as expand it to any area in the Atlantic and Caribbean identified by NOAA as at-risk for a tsunami. In addition, the bill requires the identification and repair of malfunctioning tsunami detection and warning buoys. Cantwell was also able to include a specific directive to complete tsunami inundation mapping studies for inland bodies of water such as the Puget Sound.

This funding included in the bill will also help support ongoing efforts at Seattle’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), which provides research support to all aspects of the tsunami program in the U.S. and is home to many of the world’s leading tsunami researchers. The lab will have a leading role in developing technology for the new global tsunami warning system.

Tsunamis generated by powerful distant earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean or local quakes caused by an offshore fault called the Cascadia subduction zone are an ever-present threat to Washington state. The 680-mile long Cascadia subduction zone lies off the coasts of Washington and Oregon and is similar in size and geologic character to the fault responsible for the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The last major Cascadia quake occurred 300 years ago and hit the Washington coast with an estimated 30-foot high ocean surge. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 10 to 14 percent chance of another major Cascadia quake within the next 50 years. A Cascadia or Puget Sound generated tsunami would allow for less than 20 minutes warning, making tsunami education and efficient evacuation plans essential.

In June 2005, low-lying areas in La Push, Neah Bay, and on the Quileute and Makah Indian Reservations evacuated when tsunami warnings went into effect. In La Push, local police manually activated tsunami warning sirens, and police, firefighters, and Fish and Wildlife officials oversaw the evacuation of over 600 residents to nearby bluffs. In Neah Bay, warning sirens, which cannot be triggered locally, did not go off, and police instead evacuated residents by going door to door. The events underscored the urgent need for a better tsunami warning system and the need for new tsunami safety legislation like the measures passed Friday.

Last March, Cantwell previewed a test of the Ocean Shores tsunami warning siren and announced $443,000 in federal funds she secured last year to help purchase 10 additional warning sirens for Washington state. These funds were included in the fiscal year 2006 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Act, which also included more than $6 million to strengthen the U.S. Tsunami Warning Network, including $1 million for re-engineering and design of tsunami detection buoys and $500,000 for next generation buoy research.

The tsunami safety legislation passed by Congress Friday is also included in legislation to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which passed the Senate Thursday but has yet to pass the House. However, the passage of the tsunami safety bill as stand-alone legislation by both the House and the Senate means that it can now become law without any further action by Congress.