The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to provide funding for the majority of states in the nation to prepare for catastrophic tsunamis. That seems like a sound plan, but is it watertight?
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office — the audit, evaluation and investigation arm of Congress — notes that as funding for tsunami preparation is distributed to more states, the areas that need assistance the most are likely to see their dollars dwindle.
Currently, the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program provides states with federal funding to assist them with creating tsunami inundation maps, detection and warning systems, and educational tools. Five Pacific states receive about $275,000 annually from NTHMP. The states in turn match NTHMP funding, on average, by a ration of six state in-kind dollar contributions for every program dollar.
NOAA is allowing 23 additional states to take part in the NTHMP this year. But without increasing the total funding, that’s likely to sink the mitigation efforts in the areas that need funding the most. The five Pacific states that are deemed most likely to be struck by a tsunami are likely to see their share of the funding reduced. Furthermore, the GAO report indicates that NOAA has not yet developed a long-range strategic plan to guide NTHMP efforts.
“Because tsunamis are rare and tsunami risk reduction is a multi-decadal undertaking, major improvements to tsunami warning and risk reduction will come as a result of research,” R. Thomas Weimer wrote for the Department of the Interior. Yet if U.S. tsunami programs and research are not guided by long-term strategic plans and measured by demonstrable achievements, the nation is unlikely to be to keep tsunami mitigation programs in the most vulnerable coastal communities afloat.
What long-term role can the federal government have in research to improve tsunami warnings and mitigate tsunami risks without a strategic plan? GAO asks. It will take a long time, and long-term plan, to get tsunami mitigation efforts up to par, the report noted.
GAO explains that even the most tsunami-prone states haven’t done all they can to mitigate risks, with inundation maps often lacking, educational efforts inconsistent and warning systems unreliable, due to limited funding. Also, because of a lack of information, risk models such as those that exist for hurricanes and earthquakes don’t exist, meaning it will be difficult for insurers to predict risk as well. “Much is left to be done to improve tsunami assessment, detection, warning and mitigation in the hazardous Pacific region and other at-risk areas of the United States,” the report says.
NOAA should be applauded for trying to help more areas plan for tsunamis’ worst by adding 23 states to NTHMP. But perhaps the Administration is putting the cart before the horse — or in this case, the boat in the water before it has been sealed.
Because as GAO said, “Without strategic planning and performance measures to guide its efforts, Congress and public will lack important information about the extent to which resources are being directed to activities that are of the greatest benefit to the most vulnerable communities, and to what extent measurable progress is being made toward the desired results.”
And no one — especially the public — wants to see their tax dollars going down the drain.
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