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Sequestration May Make Hurricane Season Stormier Than Usual

May 16, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 1:13 pm

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The actual effects of those automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester. The actual impact of those cuts can be as hard to predict as, say, a hurricane. Which means several challenges for government forecasters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won't release its official forecast for the hurricane season until next week, but other meteorologists are already predicting numerous storms. The question is whether the sequester will deal its own blow to government forecasters, just as they're dealing with a busy hurricane season. From Miami, here's NPR's Greg Allen from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was just a few days before Halloween last year and director of the National Hurricane Center, Rick Knabb was doing his best to send a message to residents in the Northeastern U.S.

DR. RICK KNABB: Don't focus too much on the fact that this could become a post-tropical system before making landfall. That's not going to change the fact that this large system, Sandy, is very capable of producing several life-threatening hazards over a very large area.

ALLEN: As it turned out, Superstorm Sandy ended up as the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. And it followed much the same path as Hurricane Irene, a year earlier. Together, the two events are a reminder that hurricanes are a threat to the Gulf and the entire East Coast.

In Florida, a state used to preparing for and responding to hurricanes, the state's governor, Rick Scott, recently flagged another issue - the budget cuts ordered to federal agencies as part of sequestration.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: My biggest concern is that while they say sequestration will stop during a disaster, are they going to be ready in the meantime? Are they going to have an impact on our National Guard, are they going to impact on our training, things like that?

ALLEN: Florida's National Guard says about half of its 2,000 full-time personnel will have to take four furlough days, mostly likely during hurricane season. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, says sequestration will cut a billion dollars from his agency's budget. Fugate spoke at a recent conference of emergency management groups in Ft. Lauderdale.

CRAIG FUGATE: And I'm not going to tell you FEMA is going to so more with less money. What I am going to tell you is we're probably going to do fewer things, but we're going to do them better.

ALLEN: Fugate said, after a disaster, that means not duplicating efforts of the states and the private sector. After Sandy, for example, when millions were without electricity and gas, it was the power companies and service stations that provided much-needed relief.

FEMA personnel will have to take furlough days this summer - as will employees of the National Weather Service.

Dan Sobien, the head of the union representing National Weather Service workers, says the furloughs come on top of a hiring freeze that has cut the agency's workforce by almost 10 percent.

DAN SOBIEN: It has left many offices around the country - not all - but many offices around the country severely understaffed, to the point where some of the functions they do just aren't going to get done.

ALLEN: Miami's National Hurricane Center, for example, is short-staffed in its information technology division - personnel that are vital in getting hurricane forecasts and warnings on the Web and out to the media and the public.

For forecasters and researchers - including those who staff the hurricane hunter flights - the furloughs are expected in July and August - just as the storm season is ramping up.

Hurricane Center chief Rick Knabb says furloughs will be cancelled if a storm develops. But Sobien is skeptical. He says storms often develop with very little notice.

SOBIEN: You usually don't have three or four days, the amount of time it would take to do an administrative action, to cancel somebody's furlough and bring them back to work. You usually don't have that kind of time to call somebody in because the weather is getting bad.

ALLEN: FEMA chief Fugate says his agency has enough money to cover aid promised to individuals affected by Superstorm Sandy. Less clear is how much FEMA has for state and local governments still working to rebuild from the storm.

And that doesn't begin to address the potential threat - and the costs - of another active hurricane season. But at the recent hurricane conference, Fugate had advice for emergency managers who think things may be different this year because of budget constraints. Victims of a disaster, he said, don't care.

FUGATE: They don't want to hear your excuses, and they don't want to hear how bad your day was, or how much your budget got cut. Because, when they lost their family, they lost their homes, they just want to know that government and the rest of the team's there for them.

ALLEN: A commitment that may be tested if this hurricane season is anything like last year's.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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