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Jindal Versus the Volcano

While some of the projects in the [stimulus] bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. 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, DC.

Bobby Jindal

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Before the cataclysmic eruption, roughly one million people lived in the region around Mount Pinatubo, including about 30,000 American military personnel and their dependents at the two largest U.S. military bases in the Philippines–Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station. The slopes of the volcano and the adjacent hills and valleys were home to thousands of villagers. Despite the great number of people at risk, there were few casualties in the June 15 eruption. This was the result of intensive monitoring of Mount Pinatubo by scientists with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) and the USGS.

The first recognized signs that Pinatubo was reawakening after a 500-year slumber were a series of small steam-blast explosions in early April 1991. Scientists from PHIVOLCS immediately began on-site monitoring and soon declared a 6-mile-radius danger zone around the volcano. They were joined in a few weeks by USGS scientists from the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, a cooperative effort with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development.


The USGS and PHIVOLCS estimate that their forecasts saved at least 5,000 lives and perhaps as many as 20,000. The people living in the lowlands around Mount Pinatubo were alerted to the impending eruption by the forecasts, and many fled to towns at safer distances from the volcano or took shelter in buildings with strong roofs. Additionally, more than 18,000 American servicemen and their dependents were evacuated from Clark Air Base prior to the June 15 eruption. In the eruption, thousands of weaker roofs, including some on Clark, collapsed under the weight of ash made wet by heavy rains, yet only about 250 lowland residents were killed. Of the 20,000 indigenous Aeta highlanders who lived on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo, all but about 120 were safely evacuated before the eruption completely devastated their villages.

In addition to the many lives saved, property worth hundreds of millions of dollars was protected from damage or destruction in the eruption. When aircraft and other equipment at the U.S. bases were flown to safe areas or covered, losses of at least $200 to 275 million were averted. Philippine and other commercial airlines prevented at least another $50 to 100 million in damage to aircraft by taking similar actions. By heeding warnings of hazardous volcanic ash clouds from Pinatubo, commercial and military pilots avoided severe damage to their aircraft and potentially saved hundreds of lives.

The United States Geological Survey

Such a strange thing for Jindal to say, especially since he hails from the state that was ravaged by Katrina. (Which, ironically, was the subject of its own equally awkward moment). The volcano monitoring program was on a list of Republican talking points at one stage, but virtually none of them ran with it, apparently figuring that there were much better scabs to pick at.

And I know: I’m piling on a little. This was going to be an awfully tough speech to deliver, almost no matter what its content. With the possible exception of Jim Webb in 2007, the minority party reaction speeches have always tended toward extreme lameness.

I just want to know who wrote the speech and who vetted it. Because it was manifestly at odds with the talents of the guy who delivered it.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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