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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with the recommendation, stating that it would initiate revisions to the Tsunami Program's and NTHMP's strategic plans in the summer of 2010. Consequently, in May 2013 and April 2014, respectively, NOAA adopted revised NTHMP and Tsunami Program strategic plans. The revised strategic plans include strategies, performance measures, and identify the responsible office for all goals, including those goals that lacked these components in the plans we reported on in 2010 and for the TsunamiReady program.

    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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with the recommendation, stating that it would initiate the development of a Tsunami Program transition plan for tsunami research in the summer of 2010 in coordination with its research partners. Consequently, in September 2011, NOAA, through the National Weather Service, established its tsunami research to operations policy, outlining the processes, roles, and responsibilities involved in funding tsunami research and development projects and transitioning such projects into operations at tsunami warning centers and/or any operational office within the NOAA's National Weather Service. The policy applies to all Tsunami Program research and development funding requests made to program management, outlines the program components involved in the funding and transition process, and identifies who is accountable for each step.

    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

 

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