Less than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing almost 16,000 people and causing nuclear accidents, the Obama administration is proposing to cut $4.6 million from tsunami early warning and education programs.
The cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2013 budget have been fiercely criticized by scientists who say they harm the agency's ability to keep the public safe. The cuts would affect the operation and maintenance of high-tech buoys that can detect tsunamis. Already about 25 percent of NOAA's early warning stations covering the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are inoperative.
"Reducing support for tsunami warning is like removing the smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector in your house," John Orcutt, a professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, told the Watchdog. "It's increasing the risk of death and destruction."
Since it's often unclear initially whether an earthquake has created a tsunami or not, the buoys play a crucial role in detecting small increases in the height of waves, Orcutt said. Rough seas have battered many of the buoys and their performance rates were 60 percent down from optimal, according to a 2010 study he conducted for the National Academy of Sciences. "So, when you're having your budget cut, the anticipation is that the level of performance will decrease even further," Orcutt said.
NOAA officials acknowledged that it will take longer to fix broken buoys, further reducing the amount of them that are operational, but insisted that the system is still effective. Four of the 10 inoperative stations are scheduled for maintenance in June, said Susan Buchanan, spokeswoman for the National Weather Service. She also emphasized that computer risk maps and outreach programs bolster the agency's ability to detect tsunamis and warn the public about them.