How Oklahoma Tornadoes Helped NOAA Sidestep the Sequester

Brian Vitsmun sorts through debris at his home that was destroyed by a tornado on June 2 in Moore, Oklahoma Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Let’s say you run the federal agency tasked with the all-important job of issuing weather warnings in advance of severe storms, and Congress orders you to cut millions of dollars from your already tight budget. What do you do?

This exact scenario recently happened to Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The little-known government agency’s $5 billion annual budget pays for everything from National Weather Service warnings to the coastal maps ships use to navigate U.S. waterways. Thanks to mandatory across-the-board funding cuts known as the sequester, Sullivan was told to come up with a plan to save $17.5 million by April.

Sullivan decided she had no choice but to furlough workers. According to the proposal she submitted to Congress, each of the agency’s 12,000 employees would be forced to take four days off without pay by year’s end (Sullivan reserved the right to cancel the furloughs in case of weather emergencies). Given NOAA’s responsibilities, some members of Congress were none too pleased with her plan. But unlike air traffic controllers, who were ultimately spared a similar fate earlier this year, there didn’t seem to be much lawmakers could do.

Then tornadoes and floods ravaged Oklahoma. As of June 5, the death toll had reached 20, and thousands of people are still displaced from their homes. National Weather Service workers arguably did a superb job staving off more casualties by issuing warnings well in advance of the tornadoes. Alerts were broadcast six days before the storm.

Sullivan had been negotiating with the administration for weeks to come up with an alternative. It’s possible that the disaster proved to be her best bargaining chip. On June 1, nine people were killed after a tornado struck Oklahoma City, the second fatal tornado to hit the region in the previous 11 days. At 11:39 p.m. that night, Sullivan sent out an agency-wide e-mail, advising fearful employees that a deal had been reached: She was going to kill the furlough proposal.

What will replace it is anyone’s guess. Sullivan still needs to find a way to save $17.5 million. She has provided some details of a new plan to Congress in a letter, which, like other agency sequester plans, have not been made public. According to Congressional aides who declined to be identified, the plan won’t involve cutting basic operations, like the budget to monitor weather conditions, count fish stocks in U.S. waterways, or publish coastal maps. It does, however, involve maintaining a hiring freeze that was installed in March.

According to Congressional aides, NOAA is also going to delay planned construction on new ships. The agency will push expenses into future budget cycles by putting off buying new equipment and signing up contractors to do work. Of course, with the ongoing sequester, future budget cycles are likely to be as bleak as the current one. So in a way, NOAA’s just delaying the problem. The question is whether Congress will agree with the plan.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.