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Watchdog blames NOAA for lack of transparency on tsunami tracking system outage

Updated: Mar. 17, 2021 at 4:32 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - There are new allegations that the staff at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was told to keep quiet about an outage of a key data system that had been down for days.

On Tuesday, Hawaii News Now reported the crucial tsunami detection system known as DART experienced an outage earlier this month from March 9 until the 15th.

It was caused when a broken water pipe in NOAA’s Maryland headquarters knocked out the program’s servers, according to federal officials.

[Read the original report: PTWC: Key tsunami warning system offline for days, hindering ability to retrieve critical data]

Although the outage made tracking any potential tsunamis difficult, it wouldn’t be completely impossible given data from other areas around the Pacific. Leading tsunami experts report to the LA Times that without rapid data from the network, scientists would likely have struggled to pinpoint tsunami impacts.

Following that outage, there’s allegations that NOAA officials were trying to hush staff from talking about it. Public watchdogs said it was the ”complete opposite of being transparent.”

Jeff Ruch is with the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Alleged communication obtained by the group, said to be from NOAA officials to PTWC staff, said they should “avoid discussing the ongoing outages on social media.” That communication came out on March 11, the anniversary of the deadly 2011 Japan tsunami.

”I could see possibly if that was true for one day, but this started a week ago yesterday. So this blanket gag on social media extended for days, not just one day or one hour,” Ruch said.

“And the notion that you would want to censor social media that it only reflected what the agency wanted to talk about not an ongoing situation that effects readiness – seems to me that NOAA at the upper levels has a big problem,” Ruch continued.

In response, NOAA said, “The conversation between a NOAA official and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was misinterpreted. Regrettably, PEER did not ask us to confirm accuracy before publishing. March 11th was an important day to observe the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami.”

“Mike Angove, who serves as the NWS tsunami program manager, reached out to both tsunami warning centers with a request to keep their social media and public focus on the solemn observation of the anniversary on that day,” the statement continued.

Ruch responded, ”How do you spell gag? That’s the only way you spell gag. They said don’t talk about anything. The only thing you could talk about was a terrible event and avoid mentioning an ongoing situation that could contribute to perhaps a recurrence of similar event is beyond irresponsible.”

Since Monday, researchers have had a workaround to get the data from DART. And NOAA says they have been transparent about the outage, with a message posted at the top of the National Data Buoy Center website.

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