Buoys to Detect Tsunamis to be Placed Off East Coast

January 31, 2006

Federal officials say they will place the first tsunami-detecting buoys in the Atlantic Ocean this spring to give residents more time to escape the giant waves.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its plans last week as Norfolk marked its status as one of the first “tsunami-ready” communities on the East Coast. It joins the much smaller Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

NOAA said it will place two buoys about 1,000 miles off the coast, one of them east of North Carolina. Another three will be in the Caribbean. The work will take place in April.

The buoys will be able to better detect the monster waves than the tide gauges and seismometers currently used on land or close to the shoreline.

NOAA officials appeared recently at the attraction Nauticus at The National Maritime Center to recognize Norfolk’s tsunami preparedness. Tsunami-ready localities must get special training for workers and install special warning and informational signs in vulnerable areas. They also must find more than one way of getting warnings and forecasts for tsunamis and severe weather.

Better warnings could have saved thousands of lives in the Indian Ocean tsunamis in December 2004, said Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA administrator and an undersecretary of commerce.

Over four centuries, at least 40 tsunamis have hit the U.S. Atlantic coast, though many of them have been minor. Only one Atlantic-wide tsunami has been documented , one that was generated by an earthquake near Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755.

“There is a risk here for a tsunami, but the probabilities are low,” Lautenbacher said.

A computer simulation unveiled last week and now a permanent exhibit at Nauticus shows what could happen if an underwater earthquake of magnitude 8.5 struck the Puerto Rico trench, generating a tsunami.

Hampton Roads residents would have about three hours before waves up to 15 feet reached the shore, Lautenbacher said.

NOAA also developed a simulation of the Indian Ocean tsunamis for the Nauticus exhibit.

President Bush committed $40 million last year to expand the tsunami-warning system. This also includes around-the-clock staffing at tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii and the possibility of a new East Coast center.

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