Tornadoes, Earthquakes, Hurricanes – Who’s Going to Pay For All of This?!

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It’s all related. When it comes to the budget, be it county, state or federal, everything is intertwined and everything touches everything else. I’m glad I’m not in the budget business, although the disaster recovery business isn’t much better. Budgets for emergency and disaster relief are, thanks to Hurricane Irene, exhausted (or nearly exhausted). Yet we’re still more than a week away from the climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season and barely into the more active second half of the six-month tropical season. How can we keep up when Irene damage and relief estimates are in the tens of billions of dollars?

The long-range forecast keeps Hurricane Katia harmlessly out to sea - for now. But a brush of coastal North Carolina is quite possible late next week. From there, could it follow Irene's path? We don't know yet. Image: ImpactWeather TropicsWatch

What we need is a break (November 30th is how far away?), yet that’s not in the short-term plans. Hurricane Katia is expected to be between Bermuda and the Outer Banks by next Thursday(and perhaps Nova Scotia by next weekend), newly named Tropical Storm Lee is poised to bring as much as 20 inches of rain to the coastal regions of Louisiana this weekend and an area of disturbed weather 450 miles south of Nova Scotia is, of all things, looking like it may become a tropical storm within 48 hours, although this should remain a fish storm. This, on top of the deadly spring with its record-setting number of tornadoes, record flooding across the Upper Mississippi River Valley,  the East Coast earthquake, and Hurricane Irene (now categorized as one of the Top 10 costliest — New York, New Jersey and Vermont are experiencing their worst flooding in 75 years). Record amounts of dollars have already spent on disaster relief, yet we all know more dollars will have to be spent.

FEMA funds for rebuilding in Joplin, MO have been put on hold and redirected to Hurricane Irene emergency response efforts. Photo: Wikipedia

But we’re living in a different time now. With a record deficit, “new money” will no longer roll off the printer. Instead, for every dollar diverted to someplace new, there must be cuts elsewhere. Earlier this week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said that any additional disaster funding must be offset by spending cuts, which could throw emergency funds, like everything else, into partisan budget battles. Fortunately, the House has recently passed a bill that gives FEMA an additional $1 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and an additional $700 million was added to the FY2012 budget (compared to the FY2011 budget). How far will an extra $700 million go? For now FEMA is prioritizing its relief efforts, including the temporary suspension of payments for rebuilding efforts related to the Joplin tornado outbreak, while it “prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states” related to Hurricane Irene.

GOES imagery reveals Hurricane Irene over coastal North Carolina on 8/27. Image: Wikipedia

And then there are the satellites. Their useful lives (about 10 years) are drawing to a close and their lifeblood has been slashed. Do you know who much we depend on the weather satellites for not only everyday forecasts, but hurricane forecasts especially? Though taken for granted as they seem just another gee-whiz tool of the TV weatherman, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) imagery adds an almost incalculable aspect to the daily forecast. Since 1974, GOES imagery has added detection, position, intensity and scope to every forecast. In addition to seeing clouds, they sense vertical temperature structure in the atmosphere, can determine wind direction and velocity and can even determine the humidity of air and soil.  But when it comes to severe thunderstorms and tropical storms, GOES goes above and beyond by directly affecting public safety, protection of property, and economic health and development. It’s more than fair to say these satellites are life-saving and that any gap in coverage will reach well beyond a shorter weathercast on TV each evening. GOES 11 (operational as GOES West) was launched in 2000 and is due for replacement soon by already-orbiting GOES 14. GOES 12 was launched in 2001 and is currently in service over South America. GOES 13, launched in 2006 is in operation as GOES East. GOES 15 is orbiting and is in standby mode. That’s it. Two other satellites are due to launch in 2015 and 2016 — but will funding be available?

GOES units are about as big as a school bus. Like a school bus, these satellites must be replaced at the end of their useful life. GOES 15 image: Wikipedia

With more tropical cyclones to come, with more tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, fires and other disasters on the horizon, where will the funds come from to battle, repair and replace that which we hold dear?

YourWeatherBlog doesn’t make a habit of writing about politics or what happens inside the beltway of Washington, D.C., yet it seems not a day goes by without a crazed cheerleader from this state or that, or from this side of the aisle or the other, stirring headlines to save this or increase funding to that (increase funding to save the yellow-ringed pygmy womp rat? Of course!) Certainly underfunding a program that affects not only our day-to-day lives but also the ongoing safety of billions of people is worth reconsidering.

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