Oklahoma Tornado Fallout: The Sequester Cut Disaster Assistance and Weather-Warning Funds

Disaster personnel and volunteers have to rely critical federal funding that's been slashed.
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As disaster personnel and volunteers comb through the havoc left by the tornadoes that tore through Oklahoma on Sunday and Monday, they are going to rely on critical federal funding that was severely cut by the massive cuts known as sequestration.

President Obama has already declared a state of emergency for Oklahoma, directing federal aid for state and local recovery. This allows the Federal Emergency Management to provide temporary housing, home repairs, loans for the uninsured home, and other disaster relief programs. Speaking on Tuesday, the president guaranteed federal resources for victims.

"As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead," he said. "The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes."

He added later, "Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today and we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes."

And while the president has directed all needed federal assistance in this case, making no mention of sequestration, cuts to the FEMA and other governmental programs could prove tricky in the weeks and months ahead.

Due to the massive cuts brought on by sequestration, the disaster relief section of FEMA's budget will lose $1 billion this year. Following the devastation from Hurricane Sandy earlier this year, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund would pay out a total of $10.8 billion to storm victims by the end of the fiscal year. That would leave $2.5 billion in its disaster fund for the rest of the year.

While testifying before Congress in March, he said he had concerns that there would be enough money to help state and local governments that help rebuild damaged infrastructure and public. Sequestration also cut $1.9 billion from transportation repair funding and other disaster programs.

Sequestration didn't just affect disaster relief. It will also cut 7 percent of the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service and other weather detection programs.

With less funding to weather satellites, among other programs, NOAA's forecasts for major storms, hurricanes and tornadoes could become less reliable in the coming years. The National Weather Service is a key resource for informing people of imminent storms.

The launch of the next generation NOAA satellite was also delayed by a few years. Additionally, sequestration will force NOAA to furlough 2,600 employees for up to four days, and leave many positions unfilled.

"Communities across the country rely on NOAA every single day to preserve property, protect lives, prepare for extreme weather events, adapt to a changing world, and to enhance economic prosperity," the Commerce Department said in March.

If there is a more active tornado season, the money for many these disaster relief programs could run out before the end of the fiscal year in September, while NOAA may not be able to provide the most accurate weather information. And don't look now, but hurricane season also starts next week.

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Matt Vasilogambros is a staff correspondent at National Journal.

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