Tsunami program cuts would leave California exposed

A couple walks past a tsunami warning sign at Sunset Beach.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Times’ April 18 editorial, “Tsunami alert: Don’t cut that program,” raises awareness of some unwelcome proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tsunami program. The cuts, which amount to $4.6 million, would affect two important components of the national program. The Times’ primary concern is with the smaller of the two reductions, a $1-million hit to the array of buoys in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that detects tsunamis. The much-larger $3.6-million cut to the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, or NTHMP, concerns The Times less. It shouldn’t.

The NTHMP provides funding to 29 states and territories to model and map tsunami inundation zones. It trains coastal community emergency managers to respond to a warning, watch or advisory and, most important, to disseminate tsunami safety information to coastal residents, visitors and businesses.

Most of the media attention, and regrettably that of elected officials, has focused on the relatively small cut to the buoy array and has largely ignored the much larger cut that will eliminate programs at the state and community levels. A cut of $1 million to the buoy program represents a manageable reduction to an $11-million allocation, while a $3.6-million cut to the state programs under the NTHMP represents about  half of what would have been a $7.1-million budget. Between fiscal years 2009 and 2012, California has received about $1 million a year for the state tsunami program.

This isn’t to say the Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART, buoys aren’t important; they provide valuable data that verifies whether a tsunami has been generated and relay this information in real time to the Tsunami Warning Centers in Hawaii and Alaska. The DART buoys, tide gauges and modeling done at these centers make up the backbone of the national warning system. There are now 36 buoys in the array, compared to just six in December 2004, when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, generated a massive tsunami that caused more than 200,000 deaths in several nations around the Indian Ocean.


So DART buoys are crucial to providing early warnings to coastal areas likely to be impacted by tsunamis from distant sources. But what if an earthquake that generates a tsunami isn’t far off our coast? DART buoys will not contribute to tsunami warnings if an earthquake or landslide triggers a tsunami that arrives in 10 or 15 minutes. These “near source” tsunamis are not rare, as one area’s distant-source tsunami is another’s near-source event. The massive earthquake in March 2011 that devastated Japan was a near-source event for Miyagi Prefecture, where a tsunami arrived in just a few minutes. For California, the earthquake was a distant-source event; we received about nine hours’ warning.

But say the earthquake struck off America’s West Coast and no warning could be provided by the DART buoys. This is where the NTHMP supersedes the sophisticated warning system with some old-school wisdom and guidance. The programs helps train coastal residents, visitors and business owners that if they experience lengthy ground-shaking from an earthquake, they should immediately move to higher ground, beyond the limits of the hazard zones identified ahead of time by the state tsunami programs. Tsunami planners call this the “natural or nature’s warning.” This safety information is incorporated into all the brochures, videos, school curricula, signage and other media developed by state and local programs and funded by the NTHMP.

The NTHMP supplements the tsunami warning system in other ways as well. In California, the state tsunami program, managed and administered by the California Emergency Management Agency with scientific and technical support from the California Geological Survey, completed tsunami inundation mapping for all 20 coastal counties in December 2009. Since then it has assisted authorities in using the maps to develop evacuation plans and response protocols. It has also purchased more than 3,000 tsunami hazard signs for dozens of coastal communities. Other projects include developing a maritime safety zone for evacuations after tsunami warnings.

California has experienced a number of tsunamis, including the one that resulted from the 2011 earthquake in Japan, which caused about $60 million in damage and claimed the life of a Del Norte County resident. It could be worse -- much worse. Oregon, Washington and Northern California face a significant tsunami threat from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a zone very similar to the source of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 Japan disaster. There are 375,000 residents who live in mapped tsunami inundation areas in the state, millions of beach visitors every year, three major metropolitan areas on the California coast and ports that receive and distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in goods across the United States. Isn’t it worth our small investment in the NTHMP to protect them?



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James Goltz is the recently retired branch chief of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Volcanic Hazards Program of the California Emergency Management Agency.

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