The Washington Post

Sequester could ultimately affect severe-weather forecasting

A man turns away after taking a photo of the snow-covered U.S. Capitol and the reflecting pool on Jan.24, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The nation’s weather service and emergency response agencies won’t feel the immediate sting of the automatic spending cuts that hit the federal government last week, but officials have said it’s just a matter of time.

The National Weather Service will still be able to forecast severe weather events such as the late-winter storm set to hit the Mid-Atlantic region Wednesday, but there’s a chance those forecasts may not be as accurate.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said that the reductions will negatively affect weather forecasting.

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank said in a Feb. 8 report to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) that the required cuts could delay the launch of new weather satellites in coming years, which would “increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings.”

In February, Congress’s auditing department ranked the potential satellite gap among the top 30 threats facing the federal government.

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

Taken as a whole, those impacts would mean less precision in predicting where hurricanes and tornadoes will occur, according to Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

“We’ll have to evacuate much larger areas,” Sobien said. “People can die just because of an evacuation, and the cost is enormous to evacuate a city — everything from filling gas tanks to overtime for the police force. The costs are considerable.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, wrote to Blank on Tuesday saying he would allow flexibility with agency finances to avoid impacts on the nation’s forecasting capabilities.

“The Committee would be willing to consider a reprogramming [of funds] on an expedited basis” to avoid hurting the NWS’s forecasting ability, Wolf wrote.

Commerce said Tuesday that it had 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 Commerce spokeswoman Marni Goldberg. “Each Commerce bureau is continuing efforts to develop a sequestration plan — these plans are a work in progress and details are still forthcoming.”

Sobien said the White House budget office had not approved a NWS proposal that called for reducing the frequency and number of locations for sounding, or sending up weather balloons, as one plan to avoid employee furloughs.

Also, he said, “we’ve been working with the agency to develop a workable hiring freeze.” Agency managers and labor representatives are engaged in such talks across the government.

Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to questions about proposal details.

The automatic cuts would not have any immediate impact on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief funds, officials said.

Cuts require FEMA, which is under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, to shave $1 billion from its fund for this fiscal year, leaving more than $13 billion. But the disaster funds “would largely not be impacted in the near term,” said FEMA spokeswoman Marsha Catron.

The remaining funds will help to continue ongoing recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 tornadoes that ravaged Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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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