On the eve of hurricane season, the National Hurricane Center on Friday issued its customary annual warnings for the public to stock up and prepare for what experts believe could be another busy year.
But with three Washington politicians in attendance -- Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Joe Garcia, all Florida Democrats -- the warnings went beyond potential trouble in the tropics. The lawmakers called for more federal help for forecasters and disaster relief.
Echoing comments Thursday by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Wasserman Schultz said she was concerned that furloughs resulting from the automatic budget cuts could leave the hurricane center short on forecasters and reduce the readiness of the National Guard to respond to a disaster.
Nelson, citing the rising costs of home insurance in Florida and the staggering $60 billion bill that taxpayers will foot for the disaster of Superstorm Sandy, said he'll take another shot at introducing legislation to establish a national catastrophe fund. Past efforts to establish it have not won much support.
As a result of sequestration, a series of across-the-board budget cuts enacted when Congress failed to reach a budget deal earlier this year, National Weather Service forecasters, including hurricane experts at the center in Miami-Dade, may be forced to take up to four days of furlough starting July 1, the heart of the hurricane season. The National Guard, Wasserman Schultz said, also was already planning once-a-week furloughs for technicians who maintain equipment that would be used in relief efforts.
Members of both parties, including Scott, a Republican, have complained about the impacts from the cuts, imposed after Congress couldn't reach a budget deal. Wasserman Schultz called for both parties to negotiate a resolution, saying it was time to end "my-way-or-the-highway policies.''
NHC director Rick Knabb said it was still unclear how the furloughs would affect
his staff, but he said the forecasting desks would not operate short-staffed if a storm was threatening. Furloughs could be postponed or forecasters from other agencies could be brought in, he said.
Nelson, meanwhile, said he would reintroduce legislation calling for creation of a national catastrophe fund along with a call for increased funding for hurricane research.
Unlike Florida, which has created its own catastrophe fund through the quasi-governmental insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., many states don't have catastrophe funds to help offset the costs of disasters. Instead, American taxpayers often wind up footing much of the disaster bill, he said.
A national fund, he said, would help spread the risk -- covering other disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes -- and reduce costs, he said.
There already is a federally backed national flood insurance program, but after a string of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, it is running some $19 billion in the red and Congress has periodically threatened not to renew the program.