Our View: False economy threatens coast

By Del Norte Triplicate March 20, 2012 12:00 am

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 – 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 required.

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?