How Spending Cuts Would Harm Tsunami Detection and Warning

And addressing the propriety of talking policy during a disaster.

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In the immediate wake of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on Friday, I and others noted the effects that the temporary funding bill which the House passed last month would have on the government’s ability to detect and war about tsunamis. This prompted questions about both what that meant and also the propriety of making the observation while a disaster was unfolding.

[See photos of the aftermarth of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.]

I’ve got a bit more granularity on how the spending cuts would affect tsunami monitoring. As I noted last week, the House-passed bill would include a 28 percent funding cut for the National Weather Service, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer observed on Meet the Press yesterday that that funding cut would mean furloughs for NOAA, including Tsunami Warning Center personnel.

The U.S. government has two Tsunami Warning Centers, one in Hawaii and one in Alaska. According to a preliminary (since no final decisions can be made until a final funding bill is passed) draft budget analysis by NOAA, the agency would try to plan the furloughs so that at least one of the warning center was open and fully staffed at any given time. The “risk to forecasts would increase,” however, because the stations back each other up, so having one closed would magnify the effect of an error on the part of the other.

The funding cut would also put off needed maintenance and repair to the hardware side of tsunami detection. The government has 39 Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART, buoys deployed, mostly in the Pacific Ocean. A half-dozen of those buoys aren’t currently operational and require repairs—which would likely not take place under the contemplated funding cuts. Further, the functioning systems would get maintenance on an "emergency-only" basis, meaning more stuff could break down. “This will not impact the issuance of tsunami warnings,” according to the analysis, “but will degrade the quality of warnings.”

More broadly, some people thought it was inappropriate to observe Friday that the funding cuts could affect the government’s ability to warn of tsunamis. This was, they argued, cheaply politicizing a tragedy. They miss the distinction between politics and policy debates (an area in which there is admittedly overlap). As a matter of policy, cuts the House passed last month would have real world effects. It’s completely appropriate to engage on the policy substance of the policy. The cuts passed with the support of the majority party alone (while three dissidents of that party joined the entire minority party in opposing them), so they are at the center of an ongoing political fight. But just because something involves a political fight that does not mean discussing the policy substance is out of bounds.

  • See photos from the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.
  • See photos of the Obamas abroad.
  • See the month's best editorial cartoons.