U.S. Tsunami Preparedness:

NOAA Has Expanded Its Tsunami Programs, but Improved Planning Could Enhance Effectiveness

GAO-10-490: Published: Apr 28, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 28, 2010.

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In June 2006, GAO reported a number of concerns about the level of U.S. tsunami preparedness. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) leads U.S. efforts through three key programs: the Tsunami Program, which focuses on detection and warning activities; the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP), which is a partnership with federal and state agencies focusing on hazard assessment and mitigation; and TsunamiReady, which is a partnership with at-risk communities focusing on education and emergency planning. The Tsunami Warning and Education Act of 2006 directed improvements in NOAA's warning and mitigation efforts and mandated GAO to report on its progress. This report addresses (1) the extent to which NOAA developed effective strategic plans for its tsunami programs and (2) the status of NOAA's efforts to strengthen and expand the programs and move tsunami research to application. GAO analyzed NOAA documents and interviewed federal, state, and local officials responsible for tsunami planning and preparedness efforts.

NOAA adopted strategic plans for the Tsunami Program in 2008 and NTHMP in 2009, which it developed by following key planning practices and including most of the critical components of strategic plans identified by leading organizations, but some components have not been fully developed. GAO found that NOAA's planning process followed practices critical to creating effective strategic plans, such as involving stakeholders. Both plans also include most of the components of effective strategic plans--such as mission statements and long-term goals--but other necessary components were missing or incomplete. For example, in the Tsunami Program's strategic plan, NOAA identified nine long-term goals but did not identify strategies and performance measures for three of them. Similarly, in the strategic plan for NTHMP, NOAA identified eight long-term goals but did not identify performance measures, milestones, or who is responsible for achieving one of the goals. Although the strategic plan for NTHMP includes a goal for the TsunamiReady program, it does not identify strategies for achieving the goal. Since 2005, NOAA has made progress in expanding and strengthening its tsunami warning and mitigation capabilities but faces challenges in both areas, as well as in moving its tsunami research to application. To enhance its warning capabilities, NOAA has, among other actions, deployed 39 tsunami detection buoys. Operating and maintaining the buoys, however, has been difficult and costly, consuming about 28 percent of the fiscal year 2009 Tsunami Program budget. NOAA is exploring ways to reduce maintenance costs by improving buoy reliability. To enhance its tsunami hazard mitigation efforts, NOAA expanded NTHMP membership from the 5 Pacific Coast states to all 29 at-risk coastal U.S. states and territories, changed how it funds mitigation projects in states and territories, and restructured NTHMP to better meet its program goals. NOAA's efforts to mitigate tsunami impacts through its TsunamiReady program, however, have been hampered by limited community participation. Although the number of TsunamiReady communities has increased from 27 in 2006 to 74 as of February 2010, overall participation in this voluntary program remains relatively low among the more than 760 communities identified as at risk for a tsunami. In this regard, GAO recommended in 2006 that NOAA conduct an assessment to identify potential barriers to program participation. Although NOAA has not yet conducted this assessment, GAO continues to believe that such an assessment is needed to help inform the agency's strategic planning efforts. Finally, NOAA has not complied with the Tsunami Warning and Education Act's requirement to develop and execute a plan for the transfer of technology from research into the Tsunami Program. Furthermore, NOAA's initial failure to follow its agencywide research transition policy contributed to a 2-year delay in moving the new tsunami forecasting system from research to application in its tsunami warning centers. Only after NOAA developed a transition plan in 2009 that was consistent with the agencywide policy did the transition of the system begin to move forward more efficiently.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve national tsunami preparedness and ensure that NOAA fulfills its responsibilities under the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to revise the Tsunami Program's and NTHMP's strategic plans to ensure that all the components are fully developed, in particular, that they include effective strategies and performance measures for all goals, including those for the TsunamiReady program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA has updated the NTHMP plan to address our recommendation. Brad Dobbins (AIC, NRE/SF) contacted NOAA Audit on 6-27-12 to determine the status of the NOAA Tsunami Program Strategic Plan. NOAA replied that it is in the process of being updated. Due to a change in National Weather Service (NWS) leadership, NWS does not expect this update to be completed before November 1, 2012. He agreed to provide Mr. Dobbins with a copy of the updated plan when it is completed.

    Recommendation: To improve national tsunami preparedness and ensure that NOAA fulfills its responsibilities under the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to develop a transition plan for tsunami research, as required by the Tsunami Warning and Education Act. The plan should incorporate lessons learned from the transition of the SIFT tsunami forecasting system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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