WASHINGTON — So many people surged to the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center website that it slowed to a crawl early Friday, unable to provide critical information to the public about the coastal impact in the U.S. of a massive earthquake in Japan.
Until technicians were able to increase the bandwidth of the Alaska-based weather website, it failed as an information linchpin for hundreds of hundreds of thousands of people on the California, Oregon and Washington coasts looking for life-and-death tsunami information.
"We were having bandwidth issues," said Audrey Rubel, a spokeswoman for the Alaska region of the National Weather Service. "They boosted it up, and fixed the problem. Not proud of it, but it's always a resource issue."
It was a potentially critical failure in a far-flung alert system that begins with Pacific Ocean weather buoys monitored out of NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and ends with broadcast alerts on television and radio stations and tsunami sirens in coastal communities.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently proposed cutting $124 million from the National Weather Service and $454 million overall from the agency that oversees it, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Senate turned down the cuts, and Congress and the White House remain in negotiations. But National Weather Service employees remain concerned, saying they already "piecemeal things together with twigs and sticks."
The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center is based in Palmer, Alaska, north of Anchorage. It's responsible for tsunami warnings for Alaska, the U.S. West Coast and British Columbia. A separate Honolulu-based warning center handles alerts for Hawaii and the Pacific.
There was "a little bit of a communication snafu," said Laura Furgione, the deputy assistant administrator of the National Weather Service. But she said there are backup plans and redundancies for everything the forecasting agency does, and that those contingency plans worked.
Using e-mail, the Tsunami Warning Center continued to directly notify critical state officials in Alaska, who issued a tsunami warning for communities in the state's remote eastern Aleutian Islands, and watches in other parts of Alaska. The National Weather Service was still able to send out its alerts, which appeared on the agency's other websites, including the weather service's Seattle office.
"The West Coast Alaska Warning center can back up the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and vice versa," Furgione said. "We also have 122 forecast offices that can disseminate warnings and get that information out to the local communities. Through all of our backup processes, we were able to still have the information out in a timely fashion."
She also points out that within nine minutes of the 12:46 a.m. EST earthquake, the agency's Pacific Tsunami Warning center had a tsunami warning out for Japan, Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Mariana Islands. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center had a message out 12 minutes following the earthquake.
Alaska emergency planning officials got the information directly, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said the slow-to-load website didn't hamper their efforts to spread the word in 13 Aleutian and Gulf of Alaska communities, where they've installed 27 tsunami sirens since 2009.
Because it was a remote event across the ocean, they had several hours to anticipate any surges, Zidek said. And had the tsunami been generated by a local earthquake, no website would have been adequate to the task, he said.
"If people feel violent shaking for 20 to 30 seconds, that is their tsunami warning," he said. "Do not wait for sirens. That is your warning."
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who heads up the Senate Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, said he has asked for a briefing next week from NOAA officials to see how well its tsunami alert system worked. He said he'd also ask more questions of the agency in the coming weeks when NOAA presents its 2012 budget to his committee.
He said he's mostly concerned about what potential budget cuts could do to NOAA's operations, including weather satellites and daily weather balloon observations.
A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said the proposed cuts would keep in place "critical life saving and safety programs" such as the tsunami buoy network and warning systems.
"The nation is in a historic fiscal crisis, and it is imperative that the Congress roll back spending in virtually every area of government — including NOAA — so that we can help our economy back on track," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing.
Friday's earthquake may have made the cuts less acceptable to the public, though. The chairman of the full Commerce Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the event a "cruel wakeup call" that should halt proposed cuts to NOAA prediction programs.
The tsunami was the second time recently the National Weather Service's websites haven't been up to the task of a major disaster, said Daniel Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. In February, when blizzards blanketed the East Coast, the agencies websites received upwards of 20 million hits an hour, he said, crippling them.
"It's just a symptom of the fact that the National Weather Service has been underfunded for over a decade," he said. "Even if we get funded at regular levels, we're still just barely making it along."
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