WASHINGTON — With the cleanup from Hurricane Irene ongoing and Katia looming in the Atlantic Ocean, some lawmakers and top federal scientists are making the case to maintain healthy research budgets that sharpen the accuracy of hurricane forecasts.
At issue are planned cuts to research flights by the three-plane "Hurricane Hunter" squadron based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A spending plan that the House Appropriations Committee passed in May would slash the budget for such research flights from $29 million to $17 million.
As Congress returns to Washington next week, the debate over how much money to spend on those flights — as well as how to pay for future natural disasters in tight fiscal times — is expected only to intensify. There's a looming fight over not only research budgets, but also the amount of money the Federal Emergency Management Agency has on hand to pay for tornado response in the Midwest and other disasters across the country.
The emergency money, once routinely approved by Congress, got caught up in the politics of federal spending this week when Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that any spending on emergency relief would have to be offset in other parts of the federal budget.
"Why do we have to keep going through these kinds of battles?'' said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who vowed Thursday after a tour of the National Hurricane Center in Miami to restore the budget for the NOAA flights.
Some fellow Republicans panned Cantor's remarks, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose state is struggling to recover from record-breaking floods after Irene made landfall there last weekend.
Although Christie — often mentioned as a Republican presidential contender — made no mention of the research budget, he was critical of the political debate in Washington.
"Our people are suffering now, and they need support now. And they (Congress) can all go down there and get back to work and figure out budget cuts later," the governor told a crowd in the flooded town of Lincoln Park. "Nobody was asking about offsetting budget cuts in Joplin."
NOAA, too, is on the offensive, making it clear how vital the research flights are, which it contends will improve forecasts. Many forecasters say the short-term savings would come at high long-term cost. Better forecasts can save lives and money by shrinking evacuation zones, which can cost tens of millions of dollars in lost business, they say.
Last Friday night as Hurricane Irene approached North Carolina, NOAA's deputy administrator, Kathleen Sullivan, conducted interviews via satellite phone from one of the P-3 Orion turboprops that were flying into the storm. The agency's director, Jane Lubchenco, took to her Facebook page to praise the accuracy of the forecast track for Irene, but warned that "to significantly improve storm intensity forecasts, we must continue to invest in research and observation-gathering technology."
Other lawmakers are expected to join the call for maintaining a robust research program, part of a 10-year plan to improve the accuracy of the intensity forecasts that the National Hurricane Center issues. Among them: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who'll oversee a hearing next week on FEMA spending levels by a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"During Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in my home state six years ago this week, we saw firsthand the importance of comprehensive disaster preparedness and response," Landrieu said. "It makes no sense to cut programs that help respond to future disasters in order to pay for emergencies that have already occurred."
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., has vowed to amend the proposed cuts to the hurricane hunter budget on the floor of the House of Representatives.
"For communities across the country facing the threat of devastation from hurricanes, there is no greater asset than information," Castor said in a letter to the House speaker and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The cost of the hurricane hunters operations pales in comparison to the lives and money saved with the increasingly accurate predictions that come from these flights."
Nelson on Thursday was flanked by Bill Read, the hurricane center's director, who repeated concerns he'd expressed in an internal memo last month, in which he wrote that without the continued support of the Tampa air operation, "we risk falling short or failing altogether'' the goals of NOAA's Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project.
That ambitious 10-year plan, which kicked off in 2008, aims to reduce storm track and intensity errors by 50 percent and improve the accuracy of predicting rapid intensity changes, a dangerous phenomenon that remains a major gap in forecast science.
Tools that have been developed by the planes — including instruments dropped into the storm that measure its intensity and Doppler radar, which gives forecasters something similar to a CAT scan of a storm's inner workings — provide essential data to hone computer models that predict a storm's path and power.
Said Read: "It's our only real tool to know exactly what's exactly going on at the time when we put out our advisories about the structure and intensity of these systems."
(The Miami Herald's Morgan reported from Miami.)
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