Sequestering The Next Disaster

Terrance Heath

President Obama has promised Oklahoma “everything that it needs right away” to begin the process of recovering and rebuilding, after the massive tornado touched down in the state on Monday, devastating the cities of Monroe and Newcastle. Already hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Association employees are the ground in Oklahoma, and millions of dollars in federal disaster relief will almost certainly follow. Oklahoma will recover.

But the debate in Washington is a reminder that we’re all threatened by a masssive, man-made disaster called sequestration, that could make the next natural disaster even worse.

Monster tornado (May  20, 2013) ...item 3.. Two girls, 9, who were 'inseparable' best friends,  found dead in devastated Oklahoma elementary school (22 May 2013) ...item 4.. Oklahoma Tornado (May 23, 2013 / 14 Sivan 5773) ...

Washington’s repsonse to the tornado in Oklahoma was twofold. President Obama expressed the nation’s sympathy and support for Oklahoman’s touched by the diaster and promised that the state would get “everything that it needs” to recover and rebuild. By Tuesday, more than 300 FEMA employees were on the ground in Olkahoma.

The winds had barely died down in Oklahoma when the hot air started flowing back in Washington. Even as rescuers began the delecate work picking throuh the rubble in search of survivors, Republicans in Congress were already talking cuts, and insisting that relief disaster relief for Oklahoma come at the cost of cuts elsewhere. And none other than Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn kicked off the grousing.

But although political leaders of both parties expressed sympathy for the victims, it took only hours for Washington to face off over the possible cost of repairing the devastation and how it would be paid. For the moment, it was a strictly hypothetical debate, since the government already has $11.6 billion available in a disaster relief fund. But it underscored the fact that even national tragedy does not always bring the capital together.

An Oklahoma senator, Tom Coburn, a Republican who is one of the most relentless budget hawks in Congress, kicked off the touchy dispute by saying that any additional disaster relief appropriated by Congress would have to be paid for by cutting other areas of the federal budget.

Some Republicans rushed to his defense, with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin saying Mr. Coburn’s actions demonstrated “real leadership.”

At least Coburn is consistent. Earlier this year, Coburn and several other Oklahoma Republicans opposed disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, insisting that the aid be “paid for” with cuts in other areas of the federal budget.

But where can cuts be made that, in the context of the sequester’s massive across-the-board cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, won’t be equally disastrous?

As it stands now, the sequester has cut deeply enough into disaster relief and preparedness, to put the government’s ability to predict, prepare for, and respond to natural disasters and emergencies at risk.

Due to the sequester, FEMA will lose $1 billion from its budget this year alone. Disaster relief takes the biggest hit, with $560 million cut. Another $100 million is slashed from state and local grants. Smaller programs are not spared. Funding to help state and local communities prepare for disaster is cut by $3 million under sequestration, and another $1.9 million is cut from funding for transportation and infrastructure repair.

Meanwhile, FEMA will pay out $10.8 billion in relief to storm victims this year, leaving it with just $2.5 billion in relief funding for the rest of the year. The government has $11.6 billion in a disaster relief fund. So Oklahoma will get what it needs. But if more disasters tax available funds, Congress may have to vote on additional disaster relief. And in this Congress that means more Republican hostage-taking, and relief bills loaded with all kinds of amendments.

Meanwhile, FEMA may have to respond to sequester by making life and work harder or employees like the 300 or so now helping Oklahoma’s tornado victims. Reducing hiring, hiring freezes, and the elimination of comp. time and overtime could leave FEMA with an over-stretched, underpaid workforce responding in an increasing number of natural disasters.

Things aren’t much better on the preparation side of the equation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Weather Service and other weather detection programs has been targeted for cuts. Just like the GOP has tried to gut FEMA ever since Hurricane Katrina, Republicans targeted the National Weather Service for  cuts after the 2010 elections. (Right after the agency played a crucial role in warning the West coast about the tsunami in Japan.) The sequester cuts the NOAA budget by 8.2 percent, including $266 million in cuts to crucial programs that fund the agencies satellite programs

Strapped for cash, the NOAA has implemented hiring freezes. As a result, the agencies vacancy rate has tripled in the past two years. There are now more than 200 unfilled positions, including nine major forecaster positions in major cities, and general forecaster vacancies across the country. As National Weather Service Employees Organization president David Sobein pointed out last month, vacancies put a strain on the agencies remaining employees, and could impact the quality of forecasting. 

Sobien gave the example of recent poor forecasting of the early March snowstorm predicted to hit Washington, D.C., as an example of what happens when forecasters are stretched thin. But that’s not the worst that can happen, he warned.

“People are going to be overworked, they’re going to be tired, they’re going to miss warnings. We’re going to miss a tornado warning or some other thing.”

That’s before the sequester’s impact. Sequestration further threatens the nation’s weather forecasting.

The Department of Commerce warned that not only will the loss of satellite data and imagery diminish the quality of forecasts, but so will other important weather data surrendered by spending cuts.

Sequestration will also reduce the number of flight hours for NOAA aircraft, which serve important missions such as hurricane reconnaissance and coastal surveying,” said a DOC spokesperson. “NOAA will also need to curtail maintenance and operations of weather systems such as NEXRAD (the national radar network) and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (used by local weather forecast offices to process and monitor weather data), which could lead to longer service outages or reduced data availability for forecasters.”

In addition to program spending cuts, NOAA faces the possibility of staff furloughs and unfilled positions. While not specifying the number of NWS cuts, the DOC states up to 2,600 NOAA employees will have to be furloughed, 2,700 positions left vacant, and 1,400 contractor positions reduced if the sequester materializes.

“NOAA will face the loss of highly trained technical staff and partners,” a DOC spokesperson said. “As a result, the government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error and, the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised”.

The National Weather Service saved lives in Oklahoma this week, by issuing early warnings that gave people time to seek shelter before the tornado hit. The agency issued a tornado warning 16 minutes before the tornado touched down outside of Newcastle, and 19 minutes before it reached Monroe. That may not sound like enough time, but in these situations every minute counts, and any early warning increases the likelihood of getting to safety before a twister strikes. 

Advances in forecasting technology and tornado prediction could mean earlier warnings in the future. New, experimental methods could increase warning times from 15-30 minutes to as much as six hours before a tornado. But it won’t happen if agencies like the NOAA and NWS don’t have the money to maintain and upgrade their satellites and forecasting technology. The best technology available won’t make a difference if no one’s there to operate and monitor it, because the NOAA and NWS don’t have the money hire new forecasters, or even keep their remaining employees on the job. 

Tornado season is upon us, and that means we could see more than 1,000 tornados.   Most will touch down in the Midwest, but the area traditionally known as “Tornado Alley” no longer has a monopoly on tornados

Literally and figuratively, Tornado Alley now could be almost anywhere; the “alley” is more like a field that seems to spread by the year.

That funnel cloud in The Wizard of Oz (actually a 35-foot tapered stocking) was remote and exotic to audiences for much of the last century. But the Oklahoma disaster is a reminder that Tornado Alley is less a geographic description than a state of mind, as twisters seem to range farther afield and extreme weather in general turns up in unexpected places — a deadly tornado in western Massachusetts (June 2011), an earthquake in central Virginia (August 2011), storm surge on Wall Street (October 2012).

The number of recorded tornadoes has shot up over the years, but Tom Jeffrey, a hazard scientist with CoreLogic, a Santa Ana, Calif., analytics firm, says it’s not clear if that’s because there are more tornadoes or more people reporting them.

He gives several explanations for our increased concern about tornadoes and all kinds of very bad weather. Climate change seems to portend meteorological extremes; cable TV news and social media focus national attention; meteorologists are much better able to detect, track and measure tornadoes; and the population is larger and more dispersed — a fatter target.

Disasters happen. But the man-made disaster known as “the sequester” didn’t have to happen, and it doesn’t have continue. It’s possible that Congress will approve yet another “exception” to the sequester, for agencies like FEMA, the NOAA and NWS. But Congress can simply repeal the sequester.

We don’t have to sequester the next disaster, but every day that the sequester stands makes it more likely that we will. The only questions are: When and where will it happen? And who will suffer the consequences?

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