Forecasters Face Furloughs Despite Saving Hundreds From Tornado

Image: Forecasters Face Furloughs Despite Saving Hundreds From Tornado Science and operations officer Christopher Buonanno monitors data at the National Weather Service Warning and Forecast Office in North Little Rock, Ark.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013 02:25 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Despite forecasts that potentially saved hundreds of lives in Oklahoma, furloughs for government meteorologists are on track for the height of hurricane and tornado seasons, reports Politico.

Senate Republicans have advocated for months to give federal agencies more flexibility to shift funds around, which could help agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service.

But they are still not sure whether they can stave off the sequester-related cuts.

"I think we have to maintain the level of savings that we achieved in sequestration," said Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho. "But I’m one of those who believes we need to create flexibility for the agencies to manage their funds without impacting their critical functions."

NOAA plans to furlough all 12,000 employees for four work days over a two-month period that starts July 5, said spokesperson Ciaran Clayton. Hurricane season starts on June 1.

She said the agency will be able to maintain life-saving functions, forecast severe weather and maintain satellites, but with 7 percent budget cuts, the agency will need to make some hard choices.

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, whose panel oversees NOAA, said the fix for the agency's budget cuts has yet to cross his mind. Instead, the West Virginia Democrat called for "infrastructure, paying attention to infrastructure" while wondering why many homes in Oklahoma and in the path of Monday's F-5 tornado in Moore, Okla. had no basements.

"What they need is basements," the veteran senator said. "Nobody has a basement – what the hell are you gonna do?"

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, whose state lost 162 residents in the 2011 tornado in Joplin, said lawmakers "need to look at the facts to see if that’s a leap we can make. We have to monitor this and find out from NOAA whether there is any impact, how it is prioritizing cuts, and whether it can get children to safety."

NOAA sent alerts as early as last week about a severe weather system expected to move over the weekend and into Monday across the Great Plains, and members of Congress got emails about a high tornado risk on Sunday and Monday.

On Monday afternoon, the NOAA Storm Prediction center in Norman, Okla., issued a warning 16 minutes before the tornado developed, setting off sirens in and around Oklahoma City and saving lives, said Clayton.

Scientists and experts have cautioned that NOAA is underfunded, and say it lags in spending on supercomputers and satellites. They say that is why the National Hurricane Center — which is part of the NOAA — was not as accurate as a European model in predicting Hurricane Sandy's devastating turn into New York and New Jersey in October last year.

NOAA is not the only weather agency facing cuts through sequestration. The U.S. Geological Survey plans to shut down stream gauges that forecast flooding, and an Agriculture Department program that measures snow depth is facing cuts.

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