With much of the Caribbean devastated by Hurricane Irma’s 185 mile-per-hour winds and 20-foot storm surges, South Florida anticipating similar destruction as the Category 4 storm approaches for a direct hit, and the Houston area beginning a recovery from Hurricane Harvey which is expected to last years, President Donald Trump’s budget proposal displays open hostility towards the very agencies tasked with insulating residents from the impact of such disasters.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) are responsible for predicting extreme weather events like hurricanes, which they do using sophisticated satellites, sensors, and other forecasting technology.
As Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter argued this week, Trump’s budget “actually shows contempt for people dealing with natural disasters and climate impacts.”
“By denying climate change,” Tittel wrote in an op-ed, “Trump is denying our future. What he is doing is slashing the budget as part of his attack on the environment and the people of the United States.”
A $13 million Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program launched by NOAA in 2009 has allowed the agency to predict storms’ intensity with better accuracy. James Franklin, the recently retired chief of the Hurricane Specialist Unit at NOAA told the Associated Press in July about the agency’s advances.
“As the models got better and as the data got more plentiful, the models became much more capable of forecasting formations of storms,” said Franklin. “If you’re going to do advisories on potential tropical cyclones, you really need to have a good handle on which ones are going to develop and which ones aren’t, so it was that science advance that allowed us to do that. I don’t think we could have done potential tropical cyclone advisories 10 years ago.”
Accurate forecasts can be life-saving, partially because they increase the confidence residents have in storm predictions and make them more likely to follow evacuation orders.
“People are going to have an experience with the storm, and if you’re telling them, the storm is going to hit you and it doesn’t hit them, they’re not going to trust you the next time you make a forecast,” NOAA meteorologist Neal Dorst told The Verge. “It’s a matter of confidence.”
But with Trump proposing a 17 percent cut to NOAA’s budget, weather scientists worry they won’t be able to provide residents with trustworthy forecasts. According to The Verge, the proposed cuts would “directly hurt the NWS’s ability to improve…its overall forecasting system, including flood forecasting—keeping the U.S. behind Europe and other countries when it comes to predicting strong storms and their effects.”
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has completed climate research aimed at explaining the link between climate change and extreme weather events and assesses the dangers posed by chemical plants in the wake of disasters, stands to lose a third of its funding if Trump’s budget proposal is approved.
Under the leadership of Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, who like the president denies the link between human activity and climate change, the EPA has cut 400 of its staff members, urging employees to take buyouts or retire early. Democratic lawmakers have criticized the buyouts especially in light of the destruction of Houston, where a chemical plant faced explosions in the wake of Harvey, releasing potentially toxic fumes into the air.
“The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is a dire reminder of how important it is to have a fully staffed and funded EPA that can respond quickly to protect communities after disasters, whether from accidental releases of dangerous pollutants at chemical plants or flooding of toxic Superfund sites,” said Reps. Gerry Connolly, Paul Tonko, and Doris Matsui in a statement.
Long-term recovery from disasters like Harvey and Irma could suffer under Trump as well. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) looked ahead to potential destruction in Florida and ordered temporary housing units for the hundreds of thousands of Texans whose homes were lost or damaged during Harvey, the agency said Friday it was set to run out of disaster relief funds. Trump’s budget proposal would cut FEMA’s funding by $667 million, and Florida lawmakers warned that the $7.85 billion aid package passed by the House and the Senate for Harvey victims would not cover those affected by Irma.
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