Trump’s proposed tsunami warning system budget cuts vex local emergency officials

Tsunami evacuation signs point to higher ground on Buhne Point in King Salmon on Wednesday. A White House proposed budget would substantially cut tsunami warning program funding, while a House proposal would continue to fund the programs.
Tsunami evacuation signs point to higher ground on Buhne Point in King Salmon on Wednesday. A White House proposed budget would substantially cut tsunami warning program funding, while a House proposal would continue to fund the programs. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee decided Thursday not to adopt President Donald Trump’s proposed funding cuts to Pacific tsunami warning centers and programs. Local officials on Thursday said Trump’s proposed cuts could dampen efforts to forecast large tsunamis that have ravaged the North Coast in past decades.

Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would cut $12 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs including shuttering one of the two national tsunami warning centers and cutting staff from 40 full-time employees to 15, according to a report this week by the Los Angeles Times.

Local officials said the global network of ocean sensors tied to the two warning centers are critical for warning tsunami-prone areas of distant-sourced tsunamis.

“The reduction of resources would mean, in theory, that there would be far fewer people to work with that data and very quickly get us that information,” Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services Manager Dorie Lanni said. “If one tsunami warning center closes, then they would be solely responsible for analyzing all seismic data globally and getting all of that data to everyone immediately.”

Humboldt State University Geology Department professor and local tsunami and earthquake expert Lori Dengler said she was one of two California representatives asked to help draft what became the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program during the mid-1990s.

Dengler said the program’s effectiveness to forecast and provide more accurate and insightful data on approaching tsunamis has been demonstrated several times in the past two decades, especially after the 2011 tsunami generated from the Japan earthquake.

But Dengler said tsunami forecasting is still in the early stage of its learning curve. As the program is almost entirely federally funded, Dengler said Trump’s proposed cuts could dampen the substantial progress made in the past two decades.

“The thing with a rare event [such as large earthquakes or tsunamis] is that you’ve got to keep the interest up, you’ve got to keep the systems in place, you’ve got to do the exercising,” Dengler said, “because if you don’t, people will not know what to do when the time comes. A program like that takes a long time to build and it takes very little time to lose. You cut the funding and it’s gone and then you can’t just go and say, ‘We’re interested in tsunamis again.’

“It’s not something you can easily put back together.”

Trump’s budget also proposes to eliminate over $250 million in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants and educational programs that it states were a low priority or unauthorized.

“These grant and education programs generally support state, local, and/or industry interests, and these entities may choose to continue some of this work with their own funding,” the White House budget report states. “In addition, these grants often are not optimally targeted, in many instances favoring certain species or geographic areas over others or distributing funds by formula rather than directing them to programs and projects with the greatest need or potential benefit.”

Lanni said the county has used these federal grants to install tsunami warning sirens as well as for outreach and educational materials. In addition, Lanni said the president’s proposed grant funding reductions for the Department of Homeland Security and the Emergency Management Performance Grant Program would reduce federal funding used to train and equip local emergency responders. Some of this funding, which Lanni said also subsidizes half of the county’s Office of Emergency Services’ salaries, is now being diverted to other programs, such as hiring more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, Lanni said.

Without the federal grant funds, Lanni said the county would be on its own to make up for the losses.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” Lanni said. “... It could have a very broad impact on services and programs for the public.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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