The nation's cash-strapped weather-forecasting system, though partly spared from federal budget cuts known as sequestration, is about to get pinched on the verge of a hurricane season expected to be busier than normal.
Federal officials say they have the resources to warn storm-prone areas about weather emergencies, but a federal union representative warns that a hiring freeze plus furloughs threaten public safety.
Aircraft known as Hurricane Hunters will keep flying into storms to measure wind speed and air pressure, though their flight crews will have to take turns being furloughed. Weather satellites will remain on track, though the offices that monitor them will get squeezed.
Officials say they can maintain adequate staffing at the National Hurricane Center near Miami, though its forecasters will be forced to take off four unpaid days by Sept. 30. Staff at the National Weather Service already is depleted because of a hiring freeze.
"This could have a detrimental effect on everybody's public safety," said Bob Ebaugh, the steward in Miami for the National Weather Service Employees Organization. "Once you start limiting staffing, you start raising the potential for disaster."
He said furloughs could hamper the NWS' ability to predict wildfire and tornado conditions during the spring and to pinpoint where storms might hit land during the summer. Citing 250 vacancies throughout the Weather Service, Ebaugh said the agency "saves money from not filling those positions, which just caused more stress on the rest of the employees."
This mix of warnings and assurances comes on the heels of an extraordinary year of storms, flooding, blizzards and droughts -- 11 separate billion-dollar disasters in 2012, capped by Superstorm Sandy. Weather-conscious Florida, where a tourism economy depends on the great outdoors, has the most at stake from any gaps in forecasting.
Forecasters at Colorado State University have predicted 18 named storms, including nine hurricanes -- four major -- this year. The average season sees 12 storms, including six hurricanes, three with winds greater than 110 mph.
Leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, still consulting with government unions, have proposed that employees take off two unpaid days in July and two more in August, but furloughs can be canceled in an emergency.
NOAA was forced to take a 7 percent cut. But that was more than offset when Congress _ as part of a $50 billion relief package in the wake of Sandy _ added $476 million to NOAA's budget, mostly to spare its weather satellites and Hurricane Hunters from sequester cuts.
"(But) the satellite line offices within NOAA did have to make the same cuts as the rest of us," said spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton.
Extra funds in the Sandy relief bill will keep the Hurricane Hunters flying through this storm season, which begins in June. However, Air Force Reserve flight crews will be forced to take about 14 days of unpaid time off, though they can be put on military status in an emergency.
"The storms don't stop moving west on a furlough day," said Col. Craig La Fave, vice commander of the 403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, which includes the Hurricane Hunters. "So we're going to have to make sure we've got enough support personnel and enough flight crews to generate enough tails go out and penetrate these storms.
"We're not business as usual," he said. "But we've got enough resources to fight even an above-average Atlantic storm season."
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