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Oklahoma Tornado Fallout: Disaster Assistance, Weather Detection Spending Cut in Sequestration Oklahoma Tornado Fallout: Disaster Assistance, Weather Detection Spend...

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Oklahoma Tornado Fallout: Disaster Assistance, Weather Detection Spending Cut in Sequestration

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(AP Photo / Sue Ogrocki)

As disaster personnel and volunteers comb through the havoc left by the tornadoes that tore through Oklahoma on Sunday and Monday, they are going to rely on critical federal funding that was severely reduced by the massive cuts known as sequestration and which raises the possibility that Congress will have to cough up more money on future disasters.

Here's what's happened on the money front:

 

President Obama has already declared a state of emergency for Oklahoma, directing federal aid for state and local recovery. This allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide temporary housing, home repairs, loans for the uninsured home, and other disaster relief programs.

And while the president has directed all needed federal assistance in this case, making no mention of sequestration, cuts to the FEMA and other governmental programs could prove tricky in the weeks and months ahead there is a way for Congress to keep the aid flowing.

 Congress could pass emergency supplemental funding to offset the large costs, as was done in the case of Hurricane Sandy. However, a continued concern for the agency has been the need to fund assistance for previous disasters that still need emergency funding. 

 

Due to the massive cuts brought on by sequestration, the disaster relief section of FEMA’s budget will lose $1 billion this year. Following the devastation from Hurricane Sandy earlier this year, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund would pay out a total of $10.8 billion to storm victims by the end of the fiscal year. That would leave $2.5 billion in its disaster fund for the rest of the year.

While testifying before Congress in March, Fugate said he had concerns that there would be enough money to help state and local governments that help rebuild damaged infrastructure and public. Sequestration also cut $1.9 billion from transportation repair funding and other disaster programs.

Congress can cough up the money but it would have to pass both chambers like any funding measure and in a charged, partisan atmosphere there's no guarantee of its passage, especially if it became the vehicle for controversial amendments. 

Nevertheless, Obama is expressing no doubts about funding being available. Speaking on Tuesday, the president guaranteed federal resources for victims.

 

“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” he said. “The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes.”

He added later, “Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today and we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes.”

Beyond the question of disaster relief there's the issue of how sequestration might affect our ability to foresee disasters. Sequestration also cut 7 percent of the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service and other weather detection programs.

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With less funding to weather satellites, among other programs, NOAA’s forecasts for major storms, hurricanes and tornadoes could become less reliable in the coming years. The National Weather Service is a key resource for informing people of imminent storms.

The launch of the next generation NOAA satellite was also delayed by a few years. Additionally, sequestration will force NOAA to furlough 2,600 employees for up to four days, and leave many positions unfilled.

“Communities across the country rely on NOAA every single day to preserve property, protect lives, prepare for extreme weather events, adapt to a changing world, and to enhance economic prosperity,” the Commerce Department said in March.

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service said it was still able to release a tornado warning 16 minutes before the tornado developed.

If there is a more active tornado season, the money for many these disaster relief programs could run out before the end of the fiscal year in September, while NOAA may not be able to provide the most accurate weather information. And don’t look now, but hurricane season also starts next week. 

Speaking on Tuesday, the president guaranteed federal resources for victims.

“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” he said. “The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes.”

He added later, “Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today and we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes.”

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