When congressional Republicans proposed cutting tsunami safety programs just before the tidal waves of March 2011, they were guilty of false economy and bad timing. The Obama administration's more-recent budget-cutting proposal - after the experience of a year ago - is downright ludicrous.
The proposed savings are miniscule, but their possible cost, in terms of lives and livelihoods, is significant.
The tsunami-safety programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are examples of the good that government can do at relatively low cost.
One of those programs operates and maintains a network of 39
high-tech buoys spread across the bottoms of the Pacific and Atlantic
oceans. Measuring pressure changes and sending data to satellites, they
produce remarkably accurate projections of the size and arrival time of
approaching surges after faraway earthquakes.
The annual cost of the entire network: $11 million. The estimated
savings in Crescent City alone from evacuating the local fleet in
advance of last year's tsunami: $30 million.
You do the math.
If anything, the administration should be increasing funding for the
buoys, 10 of which are currently not working. Instead, it proposes
cutting the program by about $1 million. NOAA officials acknowledge this
would further delay repairs of the buoys that stretch all the way to
the Aleutian Islands.
The early, accurate warnings provided by the buoys tell us when to
prepare for surges - and when not to. Before they were installed, a lot
more guesswork was involved. Every major earthquake in the Pacific Rim
generated concern, sometimes leading to needless evacuations that in
turn generated dangerous complacency.
Knowing what's coming - or not coming - saves money and lives.
Remember that last year's biggest surges hit near low tide and still
ripped the docks from the harbor's inner boat basin while damaging or
sinking many of the boats that weren't evacuated. At high tide, the
disaster would not have been contained within the harbor.
Which brings us to the administration's second proposal andndash; cutting
$3.6 million out of the $7.5 million annual budget to prepare tsunami
evacuation plans, erect warning signs, compile tsunami inundation zone
maps and operate public education programs to help coastal communities
prepare for tsunamis.
"That's the most disturbing part of these cuts," said Lori Dengler, a
tsunami expert at Humboldt State University. "Without outreach and
education, you should hardly bother with the rest."
That may be an overstatement, but so is a NOAA official's contention
that the education and outreach efforts have succeeded, meaning less
effort is needed in the future. Clearly, ongoing, ambitious work is
To their credit, six U.S. senators, including all four from
California and Oregon, wrote a letter this week demanding that the
tsunami-safety money be put back in the budget.
Here's the bottom line, which after all is what budgeting comes down to:
Right now, in a striking example of government efficiency, we're
spending a little money to save a lot. Does the Obama administration
really want to hold back a few million dollars and allow the West Coast
to be less prepared for disasters that are certain to come and could
cost billions of dollars and countless lives?