What happens when the sequester meets a snowstorm?

A late-winter storm due to hit the mid-Atlantic region on Wednesday brings more than just the possibility of heavy snow. It also raises questions about whether the deep spending cuts that took effect last week will impact the nation’s forecasting and disaster-response capabilities.

The reductions, known as the sequester, haven’t yet diminished the country’s forecasting system and will not impact disaster-relief funding in the near-term, according to government officials.

But the story could change in coming months as the cuts start to materialize more, possibly around the same time hurricane and tornado seasons begin.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said little Tuesday about how the sequester has or could affect its forecasting abilities, except to point out that the agency has not finalized its plans for the required reductions.

“The Department of Commerce is actively working on how to manage the budget cut in a way that protects our core mission to serve the public,” said a Commerce official not authorized to speak on the record. “Each Commerce bureau is continuing efforts to develop a sequestration plan — these plans are a work in progress and details are still forthcoming.”

Nonetheless, Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank said in a Feb. 8 report to the Senate appropriations committee that the cuts could delay the launch of new weather satellites, which she said would “increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings.”

Blank also said the sequester would reduce the number of flight hours for the reconnaissance aircraft that help track hurricanes and curtail maintenance of the national radar network.

Union officials have said the National Weather Service has proposed cuts that include reducing the frequency and number of locations for sounding — sending up weather balloons.

“If we decrease the amount of sampling, that increases the chance we’re going to miss something, and it makes the forecasts less accurate,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “That’s going to set us back decades in our ability to forecast the weather.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, sent a letter to Blank on Tuesday indicating he does not want the agency to use the sequester as an excuse for a deterioration in forecasting capabilities.

“In order to ensure that sequestration does not negatively impact the National Weather Service’s ability to forecast the weather or NOAA’s ability to maintain the launch schedules for its two main operational weather forecasting satellites systems, the Committee would be willing to consider a reprogramming [of funds] on an expedited basis,” Wolf said.

In terms of disaster response, the sequester will leave the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $1 billion less this year for dealing with future incidents and for ongoing recovery efforts relating to Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 tornadoes that ravaged Joplin, Mo. and Tuscaloosa, Ala., according to agency spokeswoman Marsha Catron.

However, the agency said it will have more than $13 billion remaining in its fiscal year 2013 disaster-relief fund after implementing the required cuts.

“Disaster funds would largely not be impacted in the near term,” Catron said.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.
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