How Budget Cuts Could Lead To Higher Costs From Tornadoes

Koschi, via Flickr

The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on Tuesday left incredible devastation and loss in its wake. But the damage may have been even worse if it weren’t for a warning from the National Weather Service (NWS) 16 minutes before it touched down, allowing some to seek out safety. As George Zornick reported at The Nation, the tornado emergency it sent out “no doubt saved hundreds of lives in Moore.”

But the NWS has been struggling with budget cuts in recent years and is facing down even more cuts thanks to sequestration. Zornick reports that the agency in which the NWS is housed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has been on the budget cutting radar for some time:

Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have targeted NOAA for severe cuts—they came out of the gate proposing a massive 28 percent cut in their first budget that year, which was moderated by the end of the process.

But the assaults on the NOAA budget continued, and the agency couldn’t escape the sequester, which will lop 8.2 percent from the NOAA budget. This lead the acting administrator to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze in March, and four days of mandatory furloughs are on the horizon. (There is already a 10 percent vacancy rate at the agency.)

NOAA has proposed furloughing all of its 12,000 employees for four days over a two-month period starting in July. The NWS itself issued a warning that furloughs on top of the current hiring freeze could have literally disastrous consequences. “One missed event would realistically cost millions,” said President Dan Sobien. Among the potential fallout, the agency listed “reduced efficiency and accuracy for tornado events due to reduced alertness of short staffed offices.”

The cost of tornado damage can be incredibly high, as the disaster in Moore demonstrates. One expert has estimated that the price tag could reach $3 billion, which would make it one of the costliest tornadoes in the country’s history. In all, thunderstorms caused about $28 billion in economic losses in 2012, with the majority caused by tornadoes. Insured losses due to thunderstorm damage have increased sevenfold since 1980. And as can be seen in the chart below, after falling during the 1980s and 1990s, the costs of tornado damage have been rising sharply in recent years:

Without timely and accurate warnings from the NWS, more lives will be lost and more property potentially damaged, increasing the costs.

But Congress doesn’t look ready to rush to the agency’s rescue. While furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration led to swift legislative action, lawmakers are urging caution before addressing cutbacks at the NWS.