September 1st will mark the midway point of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. Right on cue, Hurricane Irene reminded Americans of the loss of life and significant property damage these storms can cause, and thus of the vital need for a robust forecasting capability. Too bad, then, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) saw its budget cut by over $140 million this year, with more reductions likely in the fiscal year beginning October 1st.
Irene finished its destructive run up the Eastern seaboard – spawning tornadoes and massive flooding along the way – only a few days before the six-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was Katrina, more than any other storm in recent memory, that highlighted the vital role of the government in preparing its people for natural hazards, and what happens when it fails at that task.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate, who has spent most of his career in hurricane-prone Florida, pointed to FEMA’s Irene response as the culmination of the agency’s post-Katrina turnaround. On Sunday he described what basically amounts to a doctrine of preemption for natural hazards: “[W]e shouldn’t have to wait until a state is overwhelmed to begin getting ready,” he said. “[W]e should be able to go in before the governor’s made a request, have supplies ready, have our teams in the state and work as one team, not waiting for damages to occur and that formal request to come.”
Of course in order to do that one needs a deep bench of meteorological expertise and expensive equipment like remote sensing satellites to make on-the-spot decisions, such as the one that prompted FEMA not to order mass evacuations in Florida because it (accurately) predicted Irene would make landfall in North Carolina rather than farther south.
NOAA’s total FY2011 budget appropriations are $4.52 billion, 3 percent below what was approved in FY2010. More importantly, Congressional appropriators removed a sizeable budget increase requested by the Administration for NOAA satellite programs, including the Joint Polar-Orbiting Satellite System (JPSS). NOAA’s Operations, Research and Facilities account will get $3.185 billion ($119 million below FY2010) and its Procurement, Acquisition and Construction account, which funds the agency’s satellite programs, will get $1.335 billion ($23 million below FY2010, but $865 million below the amount requested by the Administration).
In deliberations over the FY2012 budget request, the momentum for further cuts is already evident. “The future funding for our satellite program is very much in limbo right now,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told National Public Radio in May. “Satellites are a must-have when it comes to being prepared in detecting and tracking dangerous tropical weather. Not having satellites and not applying their latest capabilities could spell disaster.” Nevertheless, she added, “[w]e are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today.”
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th. As in prior years, NOAA’s National Weather Service issued a pre-season forecast, which we wrote about in mid-May. A few weeks ago it issued its regular August update to that forecast, noting that “storms through October will form more frequently and become more intense than we’ve seen so far this season.”
The agency now sees, with a 70-percent probability, a total of:
- 14 to 19 named storms (top winds of 39 mph or higher), including:
- 7 to 10 hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or higher), of which:
- 3 to 5 could be major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of at least 111 mph)
“These ranges are indicative of an active season, and extend well above the long-term seasonal averages of 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes,” NOAA says.
As Congress deliberates the FY2012 NOAA and FEMA budgets amidst an unprecedented wave of pressure for wholesale federal budget cuts and a move to freeze discretionary spending at 2008 levels, it should keep in mind what’s still in store for the Eastern seaboard just in the way of hurricanes – and try to remember that at least some government programs are not a complete waste of money.
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