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Nelson, Rubio fight back over proposed cuts to Coast Guard, NOAA and FEMA

With 1,350 miles of shoreline, nearly a million registered boats, and billions of dollars in historic damage from hurricanes, Florida relies heavily on three federal institutions.

The Coast Guard rescues boaters and chases after drugs and smugglers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helps track storms. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides funds to help people recover from disasters.

So President Donald Trump's proposals to cut the budgets of these institutions to fund a border wall has U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio pushing back and the organizations stepping out to explain their value to the state.

"We're not going to allow that to happen," Nelson said of the cuts in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "NOAA's mission is too important."

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Nelson said cuts to the Coast Guard "just don't make any sense" and that cuts to FEMA "are not going to be popular in the eyes of those who have to turn to FEMA after a natural disaster to try to get their lives back on track."

Rubio said he will also challenge the administration over the proposed cuts.

"I don't agree with everything that Donald Trump is for, you know — he's proposed some cuts to ... the Coast Guard that we're going to have an issue with," Rubio told WJNO-AM radio in West Palm Beach.

The budget cut proposal, drawn up by the Office of Management and Budget, would make significant cuts to the Coast Guard, NOAA, and FEMA, among other agencies, according to a draft plan.

NOAA, part of the Commerce Department, would be hit by an overall 18 percent reduction in its budget of nearly $6 billion. The Coast Guard's $9.1 billion budget in 2017 would be cut 14 percent to about $7.8 billion, while FEMA's budget would be reduced about 11 percent to $3.6 billion.

The cuts are proposed even as the planned budget for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA and the Coast Guard, grows 6.4 percent to $43.8 billion, according to the plan, which was obtained by the Washington Post.

Some $2.9 billion of that would go to building the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, with $1.9 billion funding "immigration detention beds" and other Immigration and Customs Enforcement expenses, and $285 million set aside to hire 500 more Border Patrol agents and 1,000 more ICE agents and support staff.

As the pilot of a WP-3 Orion hurricane hunting airplane, NOAA Capt. Michael Silah knows what it is like to navigate intense storms.

Now, as head of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center, which is moving from MacDill Air Force Base to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, he is trying to navigate the latest political storm.

Because the budget cuts are considered "pre-decisional," Silah, like others contacted for this story, won't address specifics. But he said the Aircraft Operations Center's $22 million annual budget, spent on flying planes into and around storms to help determine track and intensity, is money well spent.

The center's hurricane tracking efforts have improved the forecast cone by 15 percent, Silah said. That could mean big savings considering it costs local, state and federal emergency managers about $1 million per mile of coastline to evacuate residents.

"If we can shrink that cone, so fewer communities have to be evacuated, its saves far more than $22 million," he said.

On the other side of the storms, after hurricanes Matthew and Hermine hit Florida last year, FEMA paid out more than $100 million to state and local agencies helping with recovery efforts and more than 10,000 individual claims.

The Coast Guard could not immediately provide statistics for Florida, but nationwide, the service responded to 16,343 search and rescue cases last year, assisted 24,089 people, saved 5,174 lives and protected more than $63 million in property from loss, according to spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett.

Here are some other measures of Coast Guard activity:

• Responded to 11,835 pollution incident reports and deployed coordinators in response to 35 oil and 17 hazardous substance incidents.

• Seized more than 201 metric tons of cocaine and 52,613 pounds of marijuana, worth an estimated $5.9 billion wholesale, and detained 585 suspected smugglers for prosecution.

• Apprehended 6,346 undocumented migrants.

• Patrolled 3.4 million square nautical miles of the U.S. Economic Exclusionary Zone to fight illegal fishing by foreign vessels and boarded more than 4,600 U.S. vessels to enforce domestic fishery law.

Nelson, in his message to Trump on the Senate floor, questioned whether the budget moves reflect the most important national priorities.

"Deep cuts in funding," he called them, "to crucial aspects of our nation's national security and our homeland security to pay for the construction of a border wall and also for a crackdown on illegal immigration."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

Nelson, Rubio fight back over proposed cuts to Coast Guard, NOAA and FEMA 03/11/17 [Last modified: Saturday, March 11, 2017 11:50pm]
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