One year ago today, communities on the coast of Japan were reeling from a devastating earthquake and a tsunami that killed almost twenty thousand people.
It could have been much worse, had Japan’s elaborate tsunami warning system not kicked in.
Here in the US, we have a similar system. It helped warn residents along the West Coast that waves from the Japanese tsunami were heading our way. But the program is facing steep budget cuts.
When the Waves Hit Santa Cruz
Rusty Kingon works down at the docks in Santa Cruz. He's the supervisor for the UC Santa Cruz Boating Program. When the smaller tsunami from the Japanese earthquake hit the coast of California, Kingon was there. He caught the whole thing on video.
The surging current ripped docks right off their moorings. Twenty-five foot fishing boats flipped on their sides, like bath toys and smashed together.
One of the lost boats belonged to Jody Connolly. He had been living on his boat, Trident, for two years. When the boat sank, Connolly lost all his possessions.
He says he knows what happened in Santa Cruz doesn’t hold a candle to the damage in Japan. But it turned his life upside down.
"There's life before the tsunami and life after the tsunami," says Connolly. "When you lose everything, especially that quick and that fast, it changes the course of your life."
It was the biggest tsunami to hit California since 1964. Damage amounted to about 50 million dollars. One man drowned in Crescent City, and the harbor there was destroyed.
How Tsunami Warnings Work
It could have been worse here in Santa Cruz, too, if not for a warning system that prompted people to vacate their boats and head inland.
David Oppenheimer, of the United States Geological Survey, says alarms around the world started ringing within 15 minutes after the fault ruptured off the coast of Japan.
Based on the shaking, computer models can predict how big a tsunami the quake might produce, and where it might hit. But those are just predictions.
"You don’t know how high the wave is." says Oppenheimer.
For that, there’s another system in place: 39 buoys - they’re called DART buoys, Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis -- each the size of a small car, positioned in a ring around the Pacific Ocean.
At the base of each buoy is a pressure recorder, a device that can measure how much water sits above it. When the tsunami wave rolls by, the difference in pressure is translated into a signal, which is transmitted via satellite from the buoy to government monitoring centers in Alaska and Hawaii.
Oppenheimer says that while computer modeling and predictions are important, the DART buoys provide "ground truth" of whether or not a tsunami is taking place, and how big it is.
But, he adds, "it's just as important to know when there isn't a tsunami."
Unnecessary evacuations based on false alarms of impending tsunamis can shut down an entire city and cause mass chaos, he says. The costs can run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Now, the Obama administration wants to weaken this system.
Under the 2013 budget proposed by the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the agency wants to trim $1 million off the DART program's $11 million annual budget. NOAA will essentially stop fixing the buoys as quickly when they break.
Lawmakers at a recent hearing in Washington DC told NOAA administrators that they're concerned.
"If we’re not able to repair these buoys," said Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) "that could have a public safety impact."
NOAA head Jane Lubchenco responded that until now, funding for the program came from a law, passed in 2005, But the law is sunsetting at the end of this year.
"I agree it would be nice to have all those buoys up and running," said Lubchenko. "We just don’t have the money."
Preparing for the Big One
What Lofgren, and other lawmakers didn't press Lubchenco on is a bigger, and arguably more important cut that NOAA is proposing: Three and a half million dollars that pay for tsunami education and outreach efforts along US coasts.
Rick Wilson, a geologist for the state of California, says that DART buoys are great for tsunamis that start far away, for example in Japan.
But if an earthquake is close -- say, along the Cascadia subduction zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington -- by the time the buoys send out alerts, it’s too late.
"We’d have about 15 minutes to react to such an event," says Wilson.
Fifteen minutes before a major tsunami hits the shore, you do not want people checking their emails for the latest update, Wilson says. They should feel the quake, see the water receding, and know exactly what to do.
Says Wilson, "the ability of one person who does know what to do on a very crowded beach is priceless. "
And it was priceless in Japan, says David Oppenheimer, of the USGS.
"There were 200 thousand people living in the area. Ten percent of the people died. [It was a] terrible tragedy. But ninety percent survived. They knew what to do. It wasn't because of DART buoys. It was because Japanese people know about tsunamis."
But that level of awareness depends on education, drills, signs. And NOAA is making deep cuts to that program.
Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said safety won’t be compromised by the cuts, that NOAA has other programs in place to cover some of this work. She says there’s room in the budget to do some trimming.
"You don’t always have to continue putting signs up. Once they’re there, they’re there."
But signs, says David Oppenheimer, eventually get torn down. Memories fade.
"I don’t think that just because we’ve done our first round that we can sit back and think, OK, we don’t have to worry about this anymore," he says. "People forget."
Meanwhile, several members of Congress are looking for ways to restore the funding.