Cuts to Tsunami-Warning Program: Acceptable Cost-Saver or Ill-Advised Gamble?
A tsunami buoy from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
11:30am | Ignore our tsunami warning system?
The timing of Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal's March 14 press release couldn't have been better. And the rhetorical question of a subject line of the release is one Lowenthal and 16 of her legislative cohort answer with a definitive "no" in a letter to President Barack Obama, which "encourage[s] him to reconsider reductions that were included in his budget proposal. The 16 [other] legislators -- members of the Joint Committee [on Emergency Management, which Lowenthal chairs] and representatives of coastal districts -- say reducing funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) tsunami warning system and preparedness programs would be both 'ill-advised and poorly timed.'"
If timing is everything, then the group's efforts are sure to meet with success, as yesterday's 7.4-magnitude earthquake in Mexico does what big earthquakes always do: galvanizes SoCal talk of earthquake-preparedness.
But preparedness costs money, and how to deal with our fiscal shortcomings has been a constant conversation for longer than any of us cares to remember, with no end in sight. And so while no one's going to argue that ideally we ought to have all the insurance and risk-management we can get, no one's going to argue that we don't need more police on the streets of Long Beach. But fiscal realities are fiscal realities -- and things are tough all over.
"Geologists say California is due for a 6.7 or larger quake in the coming decades," says the press release. "That makes now the wrong time to weaken or defund the country's network of 39 high-tech buoys in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans [the Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) Program] and the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program. NOAA officials, in the past, have noted that the DART network is 'the cornerstone to the U.S. tsunami warning system' and that these buoys are the 'primary source' of information for tsunami warning and forecast. During last year's tsunami, these buoys helped provide precise predictions of the size of the waves, along with direction and arrival time on the West Coast. This information was used to evacuate waterfront areas across California -- which undoubtedly saved lives."
But Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, says not only that the 70% of the current system that will remain unaltered, but that in any case tsunami warnings go out based on earthquake data -- information that comes well in advance of any obtained by DART buoys.
The greatest advantage to having the buoys, he says, is how they might help us to avoid false evacuation alarms, the results of which can cost tens of millions of dollars. "[But] there has been no recent event for which the DARTs actually were needed," he says. "There were no events for which the DART data changed our decision [about whether to order an evacuation]."
How the DART buoys work. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
It's easy to say we ought to have such-and-such defense or so-and-so insurance against every imaginable disaster. But budgetary realities don't budge. If you were rich you'd have a $500 earthquake-preparedness kit, right? But you're not, so maybe you've got the $50 model. It's not that you don't value your own well-being, but fiscal reality leads you to take a calculated risk.
I'm not saying Lowenthal and the other 16 are misguided. And hey, I live close enough to the water that if a big tsunami comes surging thisaway, I better get my ass to Bixby Knolls, but quick -- so it's in my direct self-interest to have as much warning as we can be had.
What I am suggesting is that we always be careful of confusing a knee-jerk reaction for a nuanced appraisal. In the present case, I don't know whether going with the cuts or heeding Lowenthal's call is, on balance, the better choice. But since next week is Tsunami Preparedness Week, it's a good chance time to become more educated on the subject.