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Officials sound warning of cuts at weather service

Emergency management officials in coastal states are warning against cutbacks at the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center that they say could affect warning times for storms and cost lives.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles fired off a letter last week to Commerce Secretary William Daley, saying the cuts "will undermine our emergency management system and pose a serious threat to the health and well being of Floridians" _ a sentiment echoed by emergency management officials in many states as hurricane season looms in June.

The worry for emergency management officials is being able to evacuate residents from the path of a storm. Any delays in receiving warnings could be deadly and costly, said William Croft, assistant director for the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The proposed cuts come at a time when tropical weather activity is increasing. The past three hurricane seasons have been the busiest on record, said Joe Myers, Florida director of emergency management.

"We need all the lead time in Florida that we can get," he said Monday. "We're dealing with moving lots of people. Eighty percent of our population is in 37 coastal counties."

New Orleans is particularly sensitive to warning times because 1.2-million people live in areas at or below sea level. It would take 48 to 72 hours to evacuate them.

"In Louisiana, a couple hours for a storm in the Caribbean or Atlantic here and there don't make a difference, but if it's in the Gulf, a couple of hours could make a huge difference," Croft said.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in suburban Miami also expressed concern. They say cutbacks could affect their operations, which include forecasting storm tracks, issuing warnings and gathering weather data in a timely manner.

"To think that here we're going along and we have 40 people, and the next day we have 32 people, that would have a significant impact on operations," said hurricane specialist Miles Lawrence.

Every six hours, the center issues advisories with the location of a storm, its direction, wind speed, changes in pressure and any warnings that may be needed.

"Usually, the final decisions are made in just a few final minutes during a hurricane event. Every minute counts," Lawrence said. "A six-hour delay in making a decision to evacuate the (Florida) Keys could mean the loss of many lives."

The weather service is faced with cutting $27.5-million from its $460-million budget. The hurricane center's staff would be cut from 41 to 34 by mid-July. Several buoys in the Gulf of Mexico, which provide advance weather data, are slated to be cut as well.