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Cuts in hurricane center staff have state officials in tempest

State emergency officials issued dire warnings Friday that a staff cut of 25 percent at the National Hurricane Center will endanger public safety, with another busy year expected after record-setting, back-to-back storm seasons.

"It's criminal," said Billy Wagner, emergency management director for the Florida Keys and liaison with other emergency chiefs statewide. "I can't believe that they can't understand . . . the chance of losing many lives in a rapidly developing system."

The National Hurricane Center is the nation's premier forecast center for tropical weather. Its experts monitor storms from their swirling ocean birth via satellite, interpret complex computer simulations and consult with state emergency officials on what coastal areas should be evacuated before hurricane landfalls.

National Weather Service director Joe Friday announced the reductions in Washington, saying they are needed to meet $27.5-million in budget reductions mandated by Congress.

"This is a difficult time," Friday said, insisting that the service will still support "the essential ingredients of the warning system in this country."

At the hurricane center, 12 of 50 positions will be lost through a combination of retirements and layoffs, officials said. The reductions will mean less frequent updates of developing systems, although managers said they will bring in workers on overtime when hurricanes threaten the United States.

Bob Sheets, a former director of the hurricane center, ridiculed the decision as "totally irresponsible," adding, "That's sort of like saying we'll have one person at the fire station, and if a fire breaks out, we'll see if we can get enough people in. Obviously, that kind of system doesn't work."

State officials say they won't take the cuts sitting down. "We never give up in Florida, and we intend to press our perspective," said April Herrle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles.