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Jindal's Volcanic Embarrassment

Last month in his nationally televised speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized Democrats for funding "something called volcano monitoring." Now with eruptions spewing ash 50,000 feet into the air over Alaska, the governor looks like the thumb-twiddling politician from every disaster movie.

03.23.09 3:07 PM ET

Last month in his nationally televised speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized Democrats for funding "something called volcano monitoring." Now, with eruptions spewing ash 50,000 feet into the air over Alaska, the governor looks like the thumb-twiddling politician from every disaster movie.

Want to make God laugh? Criticize the stimulus plan.

OK, maybe that's not exactly right, but it sure seems that some higher authority is out to mock Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for his misguided take on disaster preparedness. In perhaps the low point of his widely panned national address last month, Jindal attacked Obama’s stimulus plan for including "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.'"

He added: "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."

Or maybe we should be monitoring volcanoes. Sunday night, after months of seismic incidents that put scientists and residents on watch, Alaska's Mt. Redoubt let loose a spectacular series of eruptions that sent enormous plumes of ash as high as 50,000 feet into the air. While the wind turned the ash away from nearby Anchorage, the plumes threaten commercial airliners that pass over the region, causing many flights to be canceled or delayed. Mt. Redoubt's last eruption, in 1989, caused $80 million in damage to an Anchorage-bound flight that lost power for five minutes after running into such conditions.

"It does pose significant problems for mechanical systems, people with respiratory illnesses, and aircraft," a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory told CNN.

As The Daily Beast reported at the time, Jindal's response was met with sharp criticism from top geologists around the country, who pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Americans in major population centers were threatened by everything from plumes of ash, to epic mudslides and, of course, lava, thanks to the dozens of active volcanoes around the US.

"Apparently the governor of Louisiana doesn't remember any of the major volcanic eruptions in recent history,” Mark Brandon, a professor of geology at Yale University who has studied volcanoes around the world, told The Daily Beast at the time. “Volcanic-monitoring right now is absolutely essential for protecting lives and property. The amount of money invested compared to the amount of money returned is trivial. It's not just some hobby—if the governor were in a volcanic eruption, he'd realize that the people who do that work are very useful in protecting you from direct hazards.”

The speech also drew swift condemnation from residents and officials in areas affected by the volcano—for example, Anchorage, where thousands of residents recently purchased masks and goggles to prepare for the imminent eruptions at Mt. Redoubt.

"Volcano-monitoring is a matter of life and death in Alaska," Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, a former mayor of Anchorage, wrote in an open letter to Jindal.

Fortunately for Mr. Begich and other Alaskans in range of the volcano, geologists say that the area around Mt. Redoubt is a prime candidate to receive stimulus funds that will boost its preparedness for such disasters.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for the New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.