The benefits of tragedy prevention

THE BENEFITS OF TRAGEDY PREVENTION…. Of all the remarks Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) made last night, the one that stands out the best was his complaint about “wasteful spending” in the economic recovery bill. He specifically pointed to “$140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring,'” adding, “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.”

Now, at first blush, there is some irony here. Jindal, the chief executive of a state ravaged by natural disasters, is mocking research funds that monitor natural disasters.

But the substance matters here. Andrea Thompson took a closer look at exactly what that $140 million is for, and explained that “volcano monitoring” helps scientists better understand the inner workings of volcanoes and offers information about impending eruptions. The federal funds saved jobs and will go to update equipment for the United States Geological Survey. (via Yglesias).

When [John Eichelberger, program coordinator for the USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program] heard Jindal’s remarks, Eichelberger said he “was frankly astonished” that the governor would use this particular example, given his own state’s recent brush with a catastrophic natural disaster.

Among the scenarios in which the USGS’s monitoring can assist – the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, which killed 57 people (including a geologist monitoring the mountain) and was the deadliest and costliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history ($2.74 billion in 2007 dollars). This event was preceded by thousands of earthquakes in the two months before the volcano blew its top; some of these prompted the governor of Washington to declare a state of emergency and many residents were evacuated from a designated danger zone.

“This is a hazard we can do something about,” Eichelberger said. “We can spend a modest amount of money and prevent a tragedy.”

Ironically, within a few hours of Jindal’s speech, a volcano in Chile forced evacuations. (If Jindal is only concerned about U.S. disasters, there are 65 active volcanoes in the U.S., and they are of particular concern in Alaska.)

Jindal seemed to dismiss the entire field of research, calling it “something called ‘volcano monitoring,'” as if the science was on its face silly.

Paul Krugman concluded, “The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.”