A crisis floats our way

June 21, 2012 

This country’s record on preparing for natural disasters and subsequent relief efforts hasn’t exactly been stellar. Just ask the folks in New Orleans.

Another disaster is coming, slowly. It has been coming for more than a year.

Everybody knows about the some 23 million metric tons of plastic, pieces of buildings, boats, docks and keepsakes of lives lost in the March 2010 earthquake and tsunami wave that wrecked havoc on the east coast of Japan.

Everybody knows, but few are doing anything about it.

Gov. Chris Gregoire this week announced a state plan to deal with debris expected to wash up on our shores, and those in British Columbia and Oregon. But that only came after a 20-foot fishing boat beached itself at Cape Disappointment State Park, even though commercial fishermen and beachcombers have been reporting hundreds of pounds of debris steadily floating ashore.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell began sounding the alarm last November, and secured an amendment to address the threat the tsunami debris presents to our coastal economies thriving on tourism, commercial and recreational fishing and boat building. The amendment directed the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere to develop an interagency action plan to prepare the West Coast for a potentially major problem.

Last month, Cantwell again called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to release its plan, if it had one. We have yet to hear anything from NOAA. Nor has the Federal Emergency Management Agency so far expressed any interest.

Gregoire said she’s willing to release money from the state’s $700,000 emergency fund, but was emphatic that the state can’t handle what’s coming without federal help.

The governor is right. The 9.0 magnitude quake that launched the 30-foot tsunami damaged more than 100,000 buildings and washed countless boats, docks, houses and other debris out to sea. Ocean currents have been carrying it all toward our shorelines at the rate of about six miles per day.

We’ve known this for a year, and even watched with satellite technology as it slowly made its way across the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not a crisis today, but it will be, as Cantwell has said, if our state and our small coast communities have to carry the cost and burden of dealing with the debris on our own.

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