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Originally published Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Be prepared for Mother Nature's punch

Japan's earthquake and tsunami shows what a serious blow Mother Nature can deliver to a region. Guest columnist Jim Mullen warns that money for tsunami- and earthquake-preparedness programs are in danger at the federal level. Funding should be preserved.

Special to The Times

NATURE always lands its punch — we are reminded of this in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan March 10.

To the prizefighter the key is to train to keep his legs in shape and his instincts sharp so that when a punch lands, his conditioning will keep him in the fight until his head clears. For a community, a state, or a country the goal is similar — we prepare and train, allowing our citizens to be ready to take the punch and clear our heads quickly.

The good news for the state of Washington is that we have accomplished a great deal and were ready as the U.S. West Coast turned its attention to the possibility of the tsunami also reaching our shores. In facing that threat, we were confident that we could rely upon the time-sensitive and accurate information provided by the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. Every resident of our state should now take note that funding and programs that ensure the very capabilities and systems that protected our citizens in this recent event now appear to be in jeopardy.

The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center is authorized by the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, which is set to expire in 2013 unless renewed. In addition, key state personnel who were up all night monitoring the approaching threat are supported by funding out of the act and federal grant programs like the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program. The latter program is projected to face a 50 percent reduction for many West Coast states.

These funds are among those at risk as officials determine priorities in a difficult economy. They are also addressing what expenditures the nation can do without.

In Japan, though many lives were lost, decisions were made years before that doubtless saved lives. We can't stop disasters from occurring, but it would be sheer folly to fail to invest in reducing the risks from powerful blows that can be dealt us by earthquakes and tsunamis. These concerns are not limited to the West Coast. These are national issues: Disasters in Washington can impact our regional and national economies.

So, let's understand the reality: We must continue to invest in an emergency management system for our state, and for the nation, that will allow us to manage the truly big punch. We need to press ahead even more vigorously to increase the excellent collaboration among tribes, communities, businesses and state officials; and continue to press on in the design and development of sturdy evacuation structures where people can take refuge during a tsunami along our coastline. That is a lesson reinforced by noting the minimal options people in Japan had available to them to escape the tsunami.

Our punch from Mother Nature may be just around the corner. This is no time to shirk our responsibilities to our citizens or our grandchildren. We must press ahead now to make ourselves ready to withstand the blow that scientists indicate could be dealt in our lifetimes.

Even in difficult economic times, we can't hesitate to advocate for programs that will help us mitigate damage, prepare our citizens, respond in a coordinated fashion across all levels of government and society, and recover in a way that restores our social equilibrium.

We have to invest now: This is a fight we cannot afford to lose.

Jim Mullen is director of theWashington State Emergency Management Division and president of the National Emergency Management Association.

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