The Debate Rages On...
Jindal vs. the Volcanoes
By Alec MacGillis
Among the points that provided fodder for critics of Bobby Jindal's much-maligned response to Obama's speech last night was the Louisiana governor's derisive dismissal of stimulus funding for volcano monitoring.
Complained Jindal of the package, "It includes ... $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."
Many left-leaning bloggers noted that it seemed a bit odd for the governor of a state that was devastated by a hurricane for which the government provided insufficient warning and preparation to be making light of upgrading our capability to guard against another kind of natural disaster. As Matthew Yglesias of the ThinkProgress blog riffed sarcastically: "Look, the Bush administration did a terrible job handling disaster relief at Katrina, so what we need is for the government to just not try at all to stave off these problems. That's just common sense."
As it happens, The Post recently interviewed the official at the U.S. Geological Survey who is helping oversee the volcano-monitoring portion of the $140 million that the Survey received in the stimulus package. David Applegate, the Survey's senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards, said the money will provide for upgrades of seismic monitoring equipment that is too slow in providing information.
"One of our big statutory mandates is to deliver robust information on landslides, and one of the biggest challenges we've got is that a lot of our aging equipment isn't able to to deliver information in real time," he said. "We need to be able to speed up the rate of this information -- minutes and even seconds matter here. This is a big shot in the arm in terms of our ability to monitor these networks."
Applegate noted that the beneficiaries of better monitoring go beyond those who live near volcanoes to include the operators of hydroelectric dams near volcanoes, which could be wiped out by an eruption. Then there are the airlines -- in 1989, a KLM 747 jet flying over Alaska had no warning that it was headed into a cloud of ash from the Redoubt volcano, which had erupted 10 hours earlier. The plane's four engines shut down and it dropped from 27,000 to 13,000 feet before the pilots were able to restart the engines and land in Anchorage.
Science writer Andrea Thompson points to one example where the monitoring saved lives: the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, where the United States had military bases at the time. "The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across," she writes. "The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there. The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."
For the record, here are the other activities the Survey will be spending its $140 million on: paying private firms to use new airplane-based laser technology to produce a more accurate topographical map of the country, useful for tracking sea level rise and flooding; upgrading buildings such as the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland; and upgrading more of the 7,500 stream gages the agency has around the country to provide water level information to power plant, boats, water treatment agencies and meteorologists.
Matthew Larsen, the survey's associate director for water, and Mark DeMulder, its national map chief, said that the need for both the upgraded mapping technology and upgraded stream gages was driven home by the flooding after Katrina. No word on whether Jindal okays that portion of the spending.
Posted at 5:12 PM ET on Feb 25, 2009
The Debate Rages On...
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