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Aerospace Industry Sounds Warning on Hurricane Forecasts, Budget Cuts

As Tropical Storm Isaac skirts the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and heads toward the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, a larger storm continues for the agency responsible for the forecasts.

Efforts to deploy upgraded weather technology could be affected by the scheduled mandatory spending cuts required as part of the domestic part of the sequester that takes effect in January. While defense reductions have attracted the most attention, the Aerospace Industries Association has launched an effort to highlight potential effects of the cutbacks on the civilian side, as well.

Frank Slazer, the vice president of space policy at the industry group, estimated that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite program could face $182 million in cuts if a 9.1 percent spending cut is applied equally. That’s small change compared with the broader defense and domestic cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, but given the agency’s smaller budget, it is already alarmed.

“It is almost like a perfect storm,” when it comes to weather satellites, Slazer said.

Slazer explained that three polar satellites: one operated by NOAA, one by the U.S. Air Force and one by Europeans combine to provide most of the data for forecasting tornados, hurricanes and other severe weather. Keeping the satellites up and running are “very key to these local short-term forecasts.”

The aerospace group is highlighting individual programs that could face cutbacks through the placement of opinion pieces in a host of local newspapers around the country. The group placed an opinion piece in Friday’s Shreveport Times by the group’s president and CEO, Marion C. Blakey, highlighting the potential National Weather Service cutbacks.

“With this devastating cut, development of a new generation of weather satellites will be delayed, risking an increase of what is already projected to be at least a 17-month gap in critical polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage beginning in 2017. National Weather Service forecast models get 85 percent of their data from polar-orbiting NOAA weather satellites,” Blakey wrote. “Without this data, weather predictions may wildly miss the mark.”

It is not clear yet how the executive branch would begin to apply the mandatory spending recessions come January, particularly if control of the White House were to change parties. But the Obama administration – or a potential Mitt Romney administration – would still have plenty of discretion in how it metes out the across-the-board cuts to programs.

Still, the apocalyptic-sounding language appeared as the Gulf Coast prepared for the storm, which is already bringing wind and rain to the GOP convention site in Tampa to make landfall as a hurricane somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi.

An aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski said the new satellite has long been a priority of the senior Maryland Democrat. Mikulski is the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds both NASA and NOAA, which have traditionally worked together on the satellites.

The aerospace lobby has also launched a website to highlight potential cutbacks in both defense and nondefense sectors.

Lawmakers in both parties currently view the National Weather Service as an important organization, indicated by the fact that House Republicans rejected reductions to the agency’s budget that had been proposed by President Barack Obama.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization panned the Obama proposal, which would have slashed the number of information technology workers at weather service offices. The administration said the reductions were part of a broader effort to make IT operations more efficient.

The National Weather Service has faced bipartisan fire since the discovery of mismanaged funds earlier this year. The agency admitted to moving around millions of dollars in funds without Congressional authorization, leaving appropriators fuming.

The accounting irregularities will ensure that Congressional appropriators, always protective of their authority, keep a close eye on the weather service budget. Most people, however, probably want an accurate forecast, come hell or high water.