Hurricane Forecasters Worry Lack of Federal Dollars Could Mean Inadequate Storm Predictions

Calling it "a matter of public safety" and "national significance," the nation's top official in charge of forecasting hurricanes and tornadoes in the United States warned Thursday that recent wrangling over the federal budget could end up stripping the federal government of its ability to predict devastating storms.

Researchers and analysts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, rely on a network of satellites to gather the data necessary to predict and monitor storms. But those satellites only have a "finite lifespan," and the funds to replace them are in danger of getting cut, according to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.

"We are now in a situation where because we have insufficient funds in the (latest) budget, we're likely looking at a period of time -- a few years down the road -- where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today," Lubchenco told reporters. "The future funding for our satellite program… is very much in limbo right now."

Lubchenco said she has "concerns" about the capabilities of the current satellite system, adding later, "It's mind boggling that we wouldn't fund this."

In particular, she said, NOAA was planning to launch a new satellite in a couple of years to replace one currently in orbit, but the current short-term spending bill passed by Congress last month provides "insufficient funds" for that to happen.

Asked whether she truly believes members of Congress would let something like the U.S. government's ability to predict severe storms lapse, Lubchenco didn't offer a direct answer. With lawmakers focused on dollar amounts, she said, she's trying to emphasize the consequences of their proposed cuts.

Nevertheless, Lubchenco said some satellites currently in place are "doing a spectacular job," citing the recent "five-day heads-up" given to residents in the path of some strong tornadoes.

Lubchenco was speaking to reporters outside her agency's Climate Prediction Center in Suitland, Md., where she was joined by Federal Emergency Management administrator Craig Fugate to announce the outlook for this year's hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Officials are predicting an "above-normal" hurricane season this year, with up to 18 named storms and as many as six that could become category five hurricanes. It's too early, though, to predict whether any of those storms would reach land.

Lubchenco said preparation is vitally important, and it only takes one storm to "wreak devastation."

Fugate has his own outlook for this season.

"I'll issue my forecast: Far too many people will not be prepared and will try to get ready in the last minutes when the hurricanes threaten their community, and won't have enough time," he said.

Fugate urged people along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast to figure out now whether they live in an evacuation zone. He also warned against so-called "hurricane amnesia."

"This is a problem along any of these areas where people forget (the) risk or feel that they have some sort of immunity because of the coastline, or the history, or the classic 'I've lived here all my life, I've never had a hurricane,'" he said. "If you live along the Gulf Coast, if you live along the Atlantic Coast, you have your notice: This is going to be an above-average season."

As for what's next for NOAA's satellites, Lubchenco said her agency is currently "working very closely with Congress."

"We are hopeful that we will be able to get the funding to get this program back on track," she said.