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Tsunami alert: Don't cut that program

Editorial

President Obama is proposing small but damaging cuts to the tsunami warning system. Congress needs to step in.

April 16, 2012
  • Giant quakes off Indonesia caused panic but little damage in a successful test of warning systems and evacuation plans introduced after the catastrophic 2004 Asian tsunami, experts said on April 12.
Giant quakes off Indonesia caused panic but little damage in a successful… (Romeo Gacad / AFP / Getty…)

After last week's earthquake in the Indian Ocean, people in Indonesia responded far differently than they had seven years earlier, after another major quake: They evacuated low coastal areas to escape a possible tsunami.

As it turned out, there were no killer tidal surges for various reasons, including the type of earth movement involved. Still, the response was a welcome improvement. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami killed close to 200,000 people in Southeast Asia; many of those victims had no idea of the impending danger. And the change this time was due in good part to an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system put in place since that catastrophe.

Strange that at the same time, President Obama is proposing small but damaging cuts to the tsunami warning system in the waters surrounding this country.

Another irony is that the bigger of the two cuts is the less damaging. In its proposed budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Obama is looking to slice about $3.5 million from the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, which provides grants to states for education of emergency staff, mapping and evacuation plans. That represents a fourth of that program's budget, but NOAA can continue many of these services through the National Weather Service's TsunamiReady program.

A much smaller budget reduction — $1 million — would be made in the nation's network of specially equipped buoys that monitor tidal surges in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and relay the information to Hawaii and the mainland. Many of the buoys already are in a state of disrepair, and though the reduction represents only about 10% of this program's budget, NOAA estimates that it would diminish the system to 72% capacity.

The devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed thousands of people, but the country's sophisticated tsunami warning system is credited with saving thousands of lives.

In the United States, Hawaii is known for its history of tragic tsunamis, especially those in 1946 and 1960. Crescent City, at the northern edge of California, also has experienced deadly tidal surges. The 2011 Japan earthquake caused about $60 million in tsunami damage in California and Oregon, most notably in Crescent City.

It would be a foolish move to impair the nation's warning system for coastal cities in order to realize trivial savings. Congress should restore the buoy funding.

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