WASHINGTON — With the cleanup from Hurricane Irene ongoing, Tropical Storm Katia looming in the Atlantic Ocean and a tropical depression threatening the upper Gulf Coast, some lawmakers and top federal scientists are making the case for maintaining healthy research budgets that sharpen the accuracy of hurricane forecasts.
At issue are research flights by the three-plane "hurricane hunter" squadron based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The House Appropriations Committee in July approved a spending plan that would cut the budget for such flights by $17 million, a decrease of 40 percent.
The debate over how much money to spend on those flights — as well as how to pay for future natural disasters in tight fiscal times — is only expected to intensify next week when Congress returns to Washington. There's a fight coming over not only research budgets, but also the amount of money the Federal Emergency Management Agency has on hand to pay for tornado response in the Midwest and other disasters across the country.
The emergency money, once routinely approved by Congress, got caught up in the politics of federal spending this week when Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said any spending on emergency relief would have to be offset in other parts of the federal budget.
"Why do we have to keep going through these kinds of battles?'' Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Thursday during a tour of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He vowed to restore the budget for the NOAA flights.
Cantor's remarks were panned by some fellow Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose state is struggling to recover from record-breaking floods after Irene made landfall there last weekend.
Although Christie, often talked about as a GOP presidential contender, made no mention of the research budget, he was critical of the political debate.
"Our people are suffering now, and they need support now. And they (Congress) can all go down there and get back to work and figure out budget cuts later," the Republican governor told a crowd in the flooded town of Lincoln Park.
NOAA, too, is on the offensive, making it clear how vital the research flights are to more accurate forecasts. Many forecasters say the short-term savings come at high long-term cost — improved forecasts can save lives and money by shrinking the evacuation zones that can cost tens of millions of dollars in lost business.
As Hurricane Irene approached North Carolina, NOAA's deputy administrator, Kathleen Sullivan, did interviews via satellite phone from one of the P-3 Orion turboprops flying into the storm.
The agency's director, Jane Lubchenco, took to her Facebook page to praise the accuracy of the forecast track but warned that "to significantly improve storm intensity forecasts, we must continue to invest in research and observation-gathering technology."
Other lawmakers are expected to join the call for maintaining a robust research program, part of a 10-year plan to improve the accuracy of the intensity forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center.
Among them: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who next week will oversee a hearing on the FEMA spending levels in a Senate Appropriations Committee.
"During Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in my home state six years ago this week, we saw firsthand the importance of comprehensive disaster preparedness and response," Landrieu said. "It makes no sense to cut programs that help respond to future disasters in order to pay for emergencies that have already occurred."
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has vowed to amend the proposed cuts to the hurricane hunter budget on the House floor.
"For communities across the country facing the threat of devastation from hurricanes, there is no greater asset than information," Castor said in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. "The cost of the hurricane hunters operations pale in comparison to the lives and money saved with the increasingly accurate predictions that come from these flights."
At the National Hurricane Center on Thursday, Nelson was flanked by Bill Read, the center's director, who repeated concerns he had expressed in an internal memo last month. He wrote that without continued support of the Tampa air operation "we risk falling short or failing altogether'' of the goals of the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project.
That ambitious 10-year plan, kicked off in 2008, aims to reduce track and intensity errors by 50 percent and improve the accuracy of predicting rapid intensity changes, a potentially dangerous phenomenon that remains a major gap in forecast science.
Tools that have been developed by the planes — including instruments dropped into the storm that measure its intensity and Doppler radar that gives forecasters something similar to a CAT scan of a storm's inner workings — provide essential data to hone computer models that predict a storm's path and power.
Said Read: "It's our only real tool to know exactly what's exactly going on at the time when we put out or advisories about the structure and intensity of these systems."