GOP Budget Cuts Would Devastate Hurricane And Weather Forecasting

by Scott Lilly

It’s late August. The Republicans are having their national convention. A huge tropical storm is bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast. So what’s new? We have had major hurricanes bearing down on the United States during four of the past six Republican conventions: Andrew in 1992, Frances in 2004, Gustav in 2008, and this year, Isaac.

But the Republican problem with hurricanes seems to go well beyond convention timing. A number of hurricanes have erupted into huge political issues, and it has almost always been at the expense of Republican candidates. This is not a coincidence: Republicans seem determined to underfund, undermanage, and understaff the government agencies that respond to hurricanes, putting lives and property at risk, as well as their political careers.

Hurricane Andrew became a major factor in former President George H.W. Bush’s re-election effort. After leaving numerous vacancies at the Federal Emergency Management Agency unfilled during his term as president, President Bush was slow to react when Andrew, the most expensive hurricane in American history (at that time), crashed ashore a few days after the 1992 Republican convention concluded in Houston. Agencies that had prepared for the storm were not called into action, and within a week angry victims were ranting about the failed government response on every network news program, underscoring the impression that the president was “detached from domestic problems.”

President George W. Bush was a good deal luckier than his father on the question of timing. While Hurricane Frances marred his New York renomination convention, the meteorological event of his presidency would not come until August 2005, 10 months after his re-election in 2004. Hurricane Katrina and the hapless effort of his administration to respond to it redefined his entire presidency and contributed importantly to the Democrats gaining control of the Senate and picking up 31 House seats in off-year elections 14 months later.

The final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency were marked by a major controversy over budget cuts at the National Hurricane Center, a dispute that eventually cost the center’s director his job. But those controversies did not end with the conclusion of the Bush administration. When Republicans retook the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, they made deep cuts in the President Barack Obama’s 2011 request for the Polar Joint Satellite System, a system of new satellites needed to replace the old ones, which currently provide 85 percent of the data used in hurricane forecasting. House Republicans proposed further deep cuts in the program in fiscal year 2012.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Jane Lubchenco called the cuts “insanity.” She said that failure to fund the satellites would create a significant gap between the time the existing satellites failed and the new system became serviceable. Lubchenco said that the gap would be like “going backwards in 20 years’ time” in hurricane forecasting.

Marion Blakey, who served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration under President George W. Bush and is now chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association, explained the problem this way: “In one test last year, NOAA ran models forecasting the 2010 Snowmaggedon blizzard using 1960s-era sea buoys and weather balloons. Without satellite data, models misjudged the storm track by 200 to 300 miles and underestimated snowfall accumulations by 10 inches.”

Blakey also pointed out, “Imagine the damages we will suffer in the future if weather forecasting capabilities are degraded and communities are not given timely and accurate warnings of major storms coming their way.”

While the final conference agreement for this past year’s appropriation bills restored a portion of the funds, the satellites were still funded at about $150 billion below the request. Following that restoration, the General Accountability Office confirmed the damage to the satellite development schedule, saying that, “there will likely be a gap in satellite data lasting 17 to 53 months from the time NPP (the existing system) is projected to cease operations and the first JPSS satellite begins to operate.”

As uncomfortable as it may seem to spend one year to four years watching storms the size of Isaac race across the Atlantic Ocean and not have the capability to which we have become accustomed to project their path or predict their intensity, the problem may very well get much worse. Because the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party demanded deep guaranteed budget cuts as the cost for agreeing to 2011’s increase in the federal debt limit, we have a series of automatic spending cuts, otherwise known as “sequestration,” that are scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013. Those cuts would dramatically restrict the already dangerously slow schedule for deploying the new polar satellites, as well as the availability of aircraft and other equipment necessary to access hurricane direction and intensity. The cuts would also reduce the staff of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

The across-the-board cuts will eliminate about $182 million from the Polar Joint Satellite System and other NOAA satellite programs in the coming fiscal year, as well as $1.6 billion from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget, which provides NOAA with the satellite launch capability. That will, without question, greatly increase the gap in polar satellite coverage, causing us to forecast the strength and path of hurricanes with less than half the amount of information that we have today.

In addition, about $90 million will be trimmed from the $1-billion-a-year budget of the National Weather Service, which will result in the elimination of about 600 jobs from their 4,500-man workforce. That means the Republicans were lucky that they had their convention in Tampa this summer and not next.

Sequestration hasn’t happened, though, and if Congress uses the remaining days before they leave for the fall campaign wisely, it may not happen. But the quality of weather forecasting will be one of the victims if sequestration goes through, and there are specific regions of the country and industries that will be disproportionately affected.

But back to the original question: Why do Republicans keep having this problem? The answer is that they have become so good at convincing themselves that the public sector doesn’t matter that when they run into problems such as hurricanes they simply don’t know what to do. If you admit that you need government to solve that problem, you might have to make concessions in other places, as well. On the other hand, if you treat agencies that manage such problems as though they don’t matter by appointing incompetent administrators and starving them of the resources necessary to provide adequate service, you end up in the kind of mess we have seen repeatedly in Republican handling with hurricanes.

As John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

There are few facts bigger and more real than a hurricane.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

8 Responses to GOP Budget Cuts Would Devastate Hurricane And Weather Forecasting

  1. max says:

    You might want to correct the spelling in the title-looks unprofessional.
    Devestate spelled Devastate

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Very nice article. One of the other reasons for this insanity is the fact that many of these satellites can and will also be used to track and measure climate change – and that’s something the GOP is taking lots of money and specific guidance from big contributors (oil, coal industries, the Koch’s etc.) to do everything they can to dismantle the infrastructure used to measure climate change – the fact this also affects Hurricane forecasts / measurements and hundreds of millions of voters (often a primary purpose of this infrastructure) is just collateral damage, IMHO.

    As to the GOP’s actions, once you start believing your own self-deceptions, regarding science, you’ll make, apparently, irrational (to outsiders) decisions based on that false (alternate) reality (i.e. dreamland) they’ve willingly immersed themselves in.

  3. Justin says:

    Don’t misconstrue this as ignorance on the part of the Republicans; It is part of their strategy to “starve the beast”: 1) Reduce the effectiveness of the National Weather Service by cutting essential funding. 2) Wait until the reduced effectiveness erodes the public’s confidence in the National Weather Service. 3) With eroded public confidence, let private sector weather businesses come in and take over functions previously performed by the National Weather Service. I’m not an advocate of this strategy, but it’s great if you’re a crony capitalist.

  4. scarecities says:

    If hurricanes are hardly ever reported, then hurricanes hardly ever happen.
    This much is obvious

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It is becoming clear that the Hurricane god has it in for the Republicans. If R & R get in you may see more than defunding for satellites, perhaps a War on Hurricanes? ME

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Just as hurricanes are going to able to intensify very quickly take away the monitoring capability. That way we can be taken by surprise time after time.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We must all follow Karl Rove’s advice, and leave the banal ‘reality-based’ world behind. Such mighty creatures as the Republican elect, true demi-Gods of greed, ego and (when required) violence, need never admit any force greater than their Will. If the Climate Cnuts command the sea to retreat, so mote it be.

  8. Ray Kondrasuk says:

    Our local paper here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, invites responses to its “Question of the week”.

    For September 5th, it asks “If you could ask one question of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, what would it be?”

    Scott, from your fine article and readers’ responses, I’ve composed this submission:

    The freshly-elected 2010 Congressional Tea Party faction slashed Obama’s proposed budget for scheduled replacement of our aging orbiters with the next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

    Mr. Romney, you staunchly deny human-caused global warming, mocking in your acceptance speech Obama’s concern (tardy and tepid, I’ll admit) for ocean rise. Yet surely you must agree that convention-disrupting storms like Issac still need to be monitored from a constant eye in the sky.

    Will you therefore promote funding for these JPSS satellites that can also be used for tracking, measuring, and verifying the ever-accelerating rate of climate change?

    Wait a minute… I think I just answered my own question.


    Eau Claire


    Joint Polar Satellite System

    Mocking Obama: