Wave of foolishness in cutting tsunami outreach funding

The Santa Cruz harbor was closed due to the surge from the tsunami  on  March 11, 2011./Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News

Almost one year ago, the catastrophic earthquake off Japan sent a tsunami barreling across that country’s coast, taking nearly 20,000 lives and setting off a potential nuclear disaster.

That same earthquake sent a surge across the Pacific Ocean, leading to a tsunami that hit the California coast, devastating the Santa Cruz harbor. At the time, the tsunami warning system — strengthened after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed at least 230,000 people — was hailed for how it alerted local authorities to the potential disaster heading our way.

In what seems to be an incredibly shortsighted proposal, however, the debt-struggling Obama administration has proposed sharply reducing the federal funding for the public outreach part of the program.

It’s shortsighted not just because the savings — $4.6 million — are infinitesimal in the overall federal budget, and not because a tsunami warning system protects only a small number of Americans in the Pacific islands and living right on the West Coast.

It’s just that unlike earthquakes, where warning systems are ineffective, tsunamis, once generated, can be predictable.

Take what happened on March 11, 2011.

The warning system began delivering information minutes after the earthquake occurred off Japan, a nation that has its own tsunami warning system. Every minute matters when a tsunami is created, since they can move at speeds up to 600 mph across the ocean. The quake-triggered tsunami was detected by a series of floating buoys and monitoring stations in the Pacific Ocean, which relayed information about the size of the surge to scientists. The $400,000 buoys — the number was increased to 39 from six after the 2004 disaster — are tethered to the ocean floor.

The federal government, which created the buoy warning system in 1996, funds two tsunami warning centers — one in Hawaii and one in Alaska — to get the information out to areas where a tsunami might hit.

Once alerted, local emergency management officials activate their own emergency communications systems and start evacuating low-lying areas.Overall, the combined tsunami-warning systems seemed to work pretty well last year. Three minutes after the huge 9.0-magnitude quake hit, a major tsunami warning was issued for the Japanese coast and within nine minutes of the quake, warnings or watches had been issued for Hawaii and other Pacific islands.

The Alaska-based tsunami warning center then coordinated and issued warnings for mainland United States and Canada, predicting when waves would hit and how big they would be when they came ashore.

Santa Cruz officials got their alert about eight hours before the tsunami hit. Although the warning  couldn’t prevent $17 million in damages to the harbor and boats, it came with plenty of time to alert and evacuate local residents. Tragically, in Japan, the warnings, quick as they were, were not fast enough, since the waves hit just 10 minutes after the quake, so quickly that many people were unable to flee in time and were swept to their deaths.

But it doesn’t take long to forget, it seems. Republicans proposed a similar cut in a budget plan passed by the House in February 2011. But the plan went nowhere after the Japanese tsunamis.

Funding for the buoys is due to run out Oct. 1, with no new legislation yet proposed to renew it. Without sufficient funding, maintenance will suffer — currently, 10 buoys are inoperable.

The Obama administration proposal would cut money for things like computer research tsunami risk maps, emergency drills and warning signs — all vital toward preparing for the next tsunami. This cut should be rescinded immediately.

People’s memories are short. Apparently, so is the government’s.

This post is the Santa Cruz Sentinel Editorial for February 29, 2012

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