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The Daily Need

Tsunami warning center submerged in budget debate

A buoy device used to help detect tsunamis. Photo: International Tsunami Information Centre

HONOLULU — When the tectonic plates under the Pacific shifted last week, the event set off a now well-documented chain of  events, ending in unprecedented disaster. But in the moments just after the quake, it was up to a small group of scientists to determine what the immediate impact would be, and to warn people around the  world.

Those scientists, from the U.S. National Weather Service’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, are now caught up in a political debate that reaches from the halls of Congress to the battered shores of northern Japan.

Just moments after the earthquake struck, the warning center’s deep ocean sensor detected it and transmitted the information to the center’s headquarters in Hawaii. Director Chip McCreery lives just 50 feet from the monitoring station, and when he heard about the quake, he rushed over. Within an hour, all 12 members of the duty staff, including nine Ph.D. scientists, were there as well.

Nine minutes after the quake struck, the center issued its first international bulletin, warning of an imminent tsunami in Japan and neighboring areas. “We estimate thousands of lives were saved because of the warning,” McCreery said here Friday. “Of course, we recognize a lot of lives were lost in this disaster, too.”

But even as the warning center continues to monitor the area for aftershocks and other seismic events, it finds itself at the center of a heated political debate thousands of miles away, in Washington, D.C.

House Republicans have proposed $454 million in budget cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the tsunami warning center’s parent agency, as part of a plan to reduce the federal budget. NOAA has also come under fire recently from some congressional Republicans who have expressed concern about its new emphasis on climate change research. The reductions aren’t aimed specifically at the warning center, but NOAA representatives say the center could feel the impact.

In the wake of the disaster, the Republican leadership is still standing by its pledge to make the proposed cuts. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor said at a recent press briefing that keeping current funding in place is untenable because “essentially what you’re saying is, go borrow money from the Japanese so we can go and spend it there to help the Japanese.”

The issue remains unresolved. The Senate failed to adopt the cuts when it approved a temporary spending measure to keep the government running, which the president signed last week. But when that stopgap measure expires in early April, the debate is expected to continue.

Need to Know’s Abby Leonard was reporting from Japan and Hawaii while on a journalism fellowship with the East-West Center.

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