The San Jose Mercury News reports that the White House is proposing to hit the National National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with a $4.6 million cut to tsunami programs put in place after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The cuts include a $1 million reduction to the system of buoys that provide early warning of tsunamis. We are assured that this reduction won't affect public safety as most of the system will still operate. It just means that repairs will be a bit slower.
Following the 2004 tsunami, the warning system was increased from 6 buoys to 39 in acknowledgement of the risk tsunamis posed to coastal communities in the United States. Currently 10 of the bouys are out of service and NOAA says they will "do their best" after the budget cuts to make sure that no more than 11 are ever out of service at any given time.
Is someone unclear on the concept here? Would we accept it if 25% of a building's fire alarms were inoperable? What about the warning systems on nuclear power plants? What if that annoying "check engine" light on you car only worked 75% of the time?
It's a pretty simple concept: early warning saves lives. The better the data, the more accurate the prediction. The more accurate the prediction, the better we do at safeguarding lives. Knowing that something is heading your way gives you time to prepare and, if necessary, evacuate at-risk populations.
Over the past few years we've send a severe deterioration in our natural hazards warning systems. NOAA has had to make significant cuts to the US Geological Survey, which deals with earthquake predictions, and to the National Weather Service, which provides early warning for storms, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
What's particularly galling about this latest cut is that it's a false economy that is totally unnecessary in budget terms. Rounding errors in the national budget probably exceed a million dollars. It's chump change. Hell, you could probably find it in the seat cushions in the White House.
Give our experience last year with damage to the West Coast from the Japanese tsunami, degrading our early warning system is just plain dumb.