Hurricane tracking and response may be affected by US sequestration

FLORIDA, United States, Friday May 24, 2013 – With all hurricane forecasts released so far predicting a season that will be little short of hyperactive, concerns have been raised that automatic federal budget cuts in the United States – known as the sequester – may deal their own blow to government forecasts and response.

The question was raised by David Greene, host of NPR News’ Morning Edition, in a programme that drew on input from Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami; Florida Governor Rick Scott; Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Craig Fugate; Dan Sobien, head of the union representing National Weather Service staff; and director of the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), Rick Knabb. 

The programme came against the backdrop of uncertainty about the consequences of sequestration during the hurricane season, with the National Weather Service alone ordering furloughs and a hiring freeze that have left vacancies throughout the agency, including the National Hurricane Centre (NHC).

In Florida, a state frequently impacted by tropical storms and hurricanes, Governor Rick Scott addressed the issue with an eye to both readiness and response.

“My biggest concern is that while they say sequestration will stop during a disaster, are they going to be ready in the meantime?” the governor queried. “Are they going to have an impact on our National Guard, are they going to impact on our training, things like that?”

According to NPR’s 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.

FEMA head Craig Fugate says sequestration will cut a billion dollars from his agency’s budget, moreover.

Speaking at a recent conference of emergency management groups in Fort Lauderdale, Fugate said: “And I’m not going to tell you FEMA is going to do 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.”

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

“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,” Sobien indicated.

NPR’s Allen added that Miami’s National Hurricane Centre (NHC), 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, moreover.

While Hurricane Centre chief Rick Knabb says furloughs will be cancelled if a storm develops, Sobien is sceptical, saying storms often develop with very little notice.

“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,” Sobien said. “You usually don’t have that kind of time to call somebody in because the weather is getting bad.”

Meanwhile, 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.

“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,” Fugate said. “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.” (Adapted from “Sequestration May Make Hurricane Season Stormier Than Usual” by Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)