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Sequestration Nation: Government Funding Is Critical in Dealing with Severe Weather

SOURCE: AP/Charlie Riedel

An unidentified woman surveys the scene at the tornado-ravaged Plaza Towers Elementary school on May 23, 2013, in Moore, Oklahoma.

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Author’s note: On Capitol Hill “sequestration” may mean a percentage point or two in lower GDP growth, but beyond the Beltway it is more than an abstract economic concept. It means real pain for real people.

Each week in our “Sequestration Nation” series, we will highlight examples of the many ways in which the federal budget cuts may hurt you and your neighbors. This week we explore sequestration’s effects on the nation’s ability to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

The devastating May 20 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, illustrated just how high the stakes of reducing funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, can be. In fact, the impact of the tornado was so great that late Friday night, NOAA submitted a plan to avert the furloughs of 12,000 employees. NOAA runs weather detection programs through one of its offices, the National Weather Service, which is responsible for issuing severe weather warnings. NOAA’s plan, whose details as of this morning remained unclear and must still be approved by Congress, highlights the fact that the agency’s ability to forecast and warn us of severe weather events would be hampered by the $271 million that sequestration is cutting from its budget in 2013, including a $50 million cut in its weather satellite program.

Regardless of where the money to avoid furloughs comes from, the plan will not provide more funding for NOAA. As was the case with the FAA, the same amount of budget cuts must still be made, and they will either come from immediate priorities or long-term, yet equally critical, priorities. While no amount of government funding will ever prevent a storm from occurring, government funding is critical in helping us forecast, prepare for, and recover from severe weather events. And in spite of NOAA’s plan to avoid furloughs, sequestration will put these capabilities at risk.

NOAA is also responsible for forecasting hurricanes through the Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center and expects the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which officially began June 1, to be “active or extremely active.” This forecast is of great concern to residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as sequestration cuts to NOAA and more than $1 billion in cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could make communities less equipped to prepare for and less capable of dealing with the aftermath of any potential storms. More than $900 million of the cuts to FEMA specifically affect disaster relief and more than $100 million will affect grants to state and local governments to help them prepare for storms.

Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, worries about this year’s hurricane season being particularly active as cutbacks at the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee mean “they would simply not have the manpower to necessary to ensure they have the appropriate coverage in all their field offices to provide us with the most accurate and timely forecast.” Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida also summed up these concerns at the recent Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. “My biggest concern,” he said, “is that while they say sequestration will stop during a disaster, are they going to be ready in the meantime?”

But sequestration is not only affecting hurricane preparedness and response; it is also inhibiting the nation’s ability to address wildfires, floods, and volcanic activity.

In western states such as California and Arizona, local officials are anxious over what could be a particularly dangerous wildfire season. These officials are hampered both on the prevention side by almost $300 million in cuts to the Forest Service and on the response side by cuts to the National Guard and FEMA grants to states. As a result of the Forest Service cuts, wildfire-prone areas are not receiving as much preventive treatment such as brush clearing and controlled burns, which help to mitigate the potential and severity of wildfires. In Ventura, California, officials worry that furloughs of civilian National Guard employees would reduce the time available for technicians to keep firefighting aircraft operable by up to 20 percent, “which during the fire season can be decisive,” according to Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.

In the Midwest and Plains states, cuts to the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, are making communities less capable of preparing for floods. Sequestration is causing the USGS to discontinue operations at about 5 percent of its stream gauges nationwide, which continuously monitor the amount and quality of water in a waterway and are critical to helping provide early warnings of floods. In places such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, budget cuts to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are making it more difficult for local communities to rebuild their infrastructure in order to prepare for the next flood.

Meanwhile, USGS cuts are forcing scientists in Alaska to shut down real-time tracking stations that monitor imminent eruptions at 5 of Alaska’s 52 active volcano sites. While volcanic eruptions are infrequent, “the ramifications can be very large” when they do take place, said USGS official Tom Murray. According to The Columbian, the ramifications of such an event were on display in 1989, when an eruption of the Redoubt Volcano caused an airplane carrying 231 passengers to lose all four engines and drop more than 2 miles before restarting its engines after flying into volcanic ash.

This summer sequestration cuts, combined with a climate-change-fueled increase in extreme weather events, appear to be setting up a perfect storm of vulnerability for communities across the country. To be fair, there is no guarantee that the natural disasters that have previously hit our country each summer will be worse or even as bad this year. But as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate sees it, “in our business, it ain’t about hope. It’s about being ready.” Sequestration is making that business considerably harder.

Elsewhere around the country, sequestration continues to affect the lives of Americans. Below are just a few of the many examples.

In spite of VA exemption, veterans in Baltimore, Maryland, are still feeling the effects of sequestration

As we previously discovered, exempting the Department of Veterans Affairs from sequestration has not exempted veterans from the effects of sequestration. Cuts to government services that address issues that disproportionately affect war veterans such as unemployment, mental health, and substance abuse still face reduced funding.

What’s more, officials at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, or MCVET, worry that sequestration cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development could reduce the center’s funding. MCVET is a nonprofit organization that provides Baltimore veterans with temporary shelter and other services to help them rejoin their communities. Angel Rhett, a veteran and resident at the center, understands how critical the center’s mission is because “[w]e’ve got people … coming back from wars that are going to have so many problems.” Federal funding accounts for 81 percent of the center’s budget, so any reduction in federal funding could cause significant difficulty for the center and the veterans who call it home.

How is sequestration affecting you and your community? Make your voice heard by contacting us at kboadi@americanprogress.org with your stories about the effects of federal budget cuts.

In Macomb County, Michigan, seniors are going hungry, thanks to sequestration

According to the Detroit Free Press, sequestration has forced Macomb County organizations to cut back on their home-delivered meals and meal sites. The problem has gotten so bad that in the county’s Elizabeth Lee Doles Manor, “some of the [senior] residents [have been] dumpster diving,” according to site supervisor Kathy Hernandez. Moreover, 66-year-old retired nurse Jo Anne Murray, who relies solely on Social Security and $122 a month in food stamps, told the Detroit Free Press last week that she had nothing left in her refrigerator but bread and butter. “It’s not pleasant, it really isn’t—going hungry,” she said.

Sequestration is forcing cuts to the Head Start program in Flagstaff, Arizona

Marie Haynie of Flagstaff credits her local Head Start program with helping to prepare her daughter for kindergarten. “She’s already reading. She does addition problems. She asks how words are spelled,” said Haynie. Unfortunately, fewer children in northern Arizona will have access to Head Start as a result of nearly $800,000 in budget cuts. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, Head Start programs in counties across northern Arizona are reducing available spots by 88 children and laying off 17 teachers and staff. “We didn’t like having to do this at all, but we didn’t have any choice,” said Haynie, who also chairs the local board governing Head Start.

Cuts to Impact Aid are shortchanging students in upstate New York

We recently explored the critical importance of federal Impact Aid, which supports schools on or near federal lands because of their inability to receive as much tax revenue from local property and sales taxes the way that most other public schools can. For the Indian River, Carthage, and Watertown school districts in upstate New York, cuts to Impact Aid could result in a loss of up to 20 percent of their budgets. Because 65 percent of the Indian River Central School District’s students are from military families, it relies more heavily on Impact Aid than any other district in the area. The district stands to lose up to $1 million during the 2013-14 school year, on top of the $500,000 loss it has already shouldered for the remainder of this school year. “If we went on for 10 years and we lost aid every year, it would be very bad,” said superintendent James Kettrick. “It would be impossible to maintain the programs we have presently.”

Sequestration is endangering the low-income housing program in Chippewa County, Wisconsin

In Chippewa County, Wisconsin, almost 400 low-income families that rely on housing vouchers to pay rent are at risk of losing their subsidies. Prior to sequestration, federal funds covered 88 percent of the costs of the program. But as of March 1, the Chippewa County Housing Authority can only rely on federal funds to cover 68 percent of its housing voucher program costs. “We can’t operate at 68 percent,” said housing authority director Ruth Rosenow. “There comes a point where you just can’t continue.” Though the housing authority has been able to tap into reserves for the past two years, its reserves have dwindled significantly. “There’s no fat left here. Once our reserves are gone, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Rosenow. “We can’t operate at a loss.”

Kwame Boadi is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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This is part of a special series: Sequestration Nation

For more from this series, click here