The Sequester and You: FEMA & NOAA

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There are few areas where you can see the importance of our federal government more than when disaster strikes.

Moore, Oklahoma  has seen several F-5 tornadoes -- in 1999, 2003 and yesterday.  At least 24 people were killed this week and part of the reason that number isn't higher was the time of day this happened.  This tornado hit during the afternoon when many residents were not home whereas the 1999 tornado touched down around 7 pm local time and 36 people were killed.  Another factor in keeping the death toll down was the warning from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Weather Service (NWS) that gave residents time to get to shelters.

The ability to accurately predict when tornadoes are likely to strike is crucial but, like the rest of the federal government, NOAA and NWS saw their budgets cut due to the sequester. The resulting furloughs include forecasters and it looks like the NWS will be forced to use fewer weather balloons (known as "soundings").  The accuracy of weather forecasters will suffer as a result.

“It [the sounding reduction] would result in up to a 30 percent decrease in forecast accuracy,”  (Dan) Sobien said. “The cost to the country [of the reduced forecast accuracy] would be exponentially higher and could cost lives.

Dan Sobien is the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.  That quote was from a Washington Post piece that can be found here.

To add insult to injury, people affected by natural disasters like this may not get the help they need because the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) budget has also been cut by approximately $1 billion.  After FEMA compensates victims of Hurricane Sandy ($10.8  billion), the agency will have $2.5 billion left -- and that has to last for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30th.  Funding for other disaster relief programs have also been cut by $1.9 billion.

The US has some of the most volatile weather on earth.  It sees more tornadoes than any other country on earth. They are also stronger than those that hit other countries.  May is the peak month for tornadoes but they can occur at any time.

It is easy to ignore what happens in Washington, DC and think that, like Las Vegas, what happens there, stays there but it doesn't.  Next week marks the start hurricane season.  If more tornadoes like the one that hit Moore strike and/or we have a busy hurricane season, it is very feasible that FEMA will run out of money before the next fiscal year begins.

The sequester was supposed to be the stick that forced Congress to do its job and deal with the hard issues facing our country but they aren't the ones being hurt by the cuts that were enacted when they failed.  They passed a law to make them forfeit their paychecks if both chambers didn't pass a budget.  They may have met that low bar, they haven't finished the job -- no conference committee has been announced so all we have is two separate budgets and no plan to reconcile the differences.

Accurate forecasting leads to giving people ample warning and saves lives.  FEMA and other programs, help people put their lives back together after a disaster.  Both are crucial, not only to the people directly impacted by storms and earthquakes but all of us and our economy. The time has come for Congress to do its job.

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