Why Do Republicans Have So Much Trouble with Hurricanes?

Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, left, gives an update on Hurricane Isaac at the National Hurricane Center in Miami on August 28, 2012. Automatic federal budget cuts from last year's debt limit deal could reduce staffing at the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

It’s late August. The Republicans are having their national convention. A huge tropical storm is bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast. So what’s new? We have had major hurricanes bearing down on the United States during four of the past six Republican conventions: Andrew in 1992, Frances in 2004, Gustav in 2008, and this year, Isaac.

But the Republican problem with hurricanes seems to go well beyond convention timing. A number of hurricanes have erupted into huge political issues, and it has almost always been at the expense of Republican candidates. This is not a coincidence: Republicans seem determined to underfund, undermanage, and understaff the government agencies that respond to hurricanes, putting lives and property at risk, as well as their political careers.

Hurricane Andrew became a major factor in former President George H.W. Bush’s re-election effort. After leaving numerous vacancies at the Federal Emergency Management Agency unfilled during his term as president, President Bush was slow to react when Andrew, the most expensive hurricane in American history (at that time), crashed ashore a few days after the 1992 Republican convention concluded in Houston. Agencies that had prepared for the storm were not called into action, and within a week angry victims were ranting about the failed government response on every network news program, underscoring the impression that the president was “detached from domestic problems.”

President George W. Bush was a good deal luckier than his father on the question of timing. While Hurricane Frances marred his New York renomination convention, the meteorological event of his presidency would not come until August 2005, 10 months after his re-election in 2004. Hurricane Katrina and the hapless effort of his administration to respond to it redefined his entire presidency and contributed importantly to the Democrats gaining control of the Senate and picking up 31 House seats in off-year elections 14 months later.

The final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency were marked by a major controversy over budget cuts at the National Hurricane Center, a dispute that eventually cost the center’s director his job. But those controversies did not end with the conclusion of the Bush administration. When Republicans retook the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, they made deep cuts in the President Barack Obama’s 2011 request for the Polar Joint Satellite System, a system of new satellites needed to replace the old ones, which currently provide 85 percent of the data used in hurricane forecasting. House Republicans proposed further deep cuts in the program in fiscal year 2012.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Jane Lubchenco called the cuts “insanity.” She said that failure to fund the satellites would create a significant gap between the time the existing satellites failed and the new system became serviceable. Lubchenco said that the gap would be like “going backwards in 20 years’ time” in hurricane forecasting.

Marion Blakey, who served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration under President George W. Bush and is now chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association, explained the problem this way: “In one test last year, NOAA ran models forecasting the 2010 Snowmaggedon blizzard using 1960s-era sea buoys and weather balloons. Without satellite data, models misjudged the storm track by 200 to 300 miles and underestimated snowfall accumulations by 10 inches.”

Blakey also pointed out, “Imagine the damages we will suffer in the future if weather forecasting capabilities are degraded and communities are not given timely and accurate warnings of major storms coming their way.”

While the final conference agreement for this past year’s appropriation bills restored a portion of the funds, the satellites were still funded at about $150 billion below the request. Following that restoration, the General Accountability Office confirmed the damage to the satellite development schedule, saying that, “there will likely be a gap in satellite data lasting 17 to 53 months from the time NPP (the existing system) is projected to cease operations and the first JPSS satellite begins to operate.”

As uncomfortable as it may seem to spend one year to four years watching storms the size of Isaac race across the Atlantic Ocean and not have the capability to which we have become accustomed to project their path or predict their intensity, the problem may very well get much worse. Because the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party demanded deep guaranteed budget cuts as the cost for agreeing to 2011’s increase in the federal debt limit, we have a series of automatic spending cuts, otherwise known as “sequestration,” that are scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013. Those cuts would dramatically restrict the already dangerously slow schedule for deploying the new polar satellites, as well as the availability of aircraft and other equipment necessary to access hurricane direction and intensity. The cuts would also reduce the staff of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

The across-the-board cuts will eliminate about $182 million from the Polar Joint Satellite System and other NOAA satellite programs in the coming fiscal year, as well as $1.6 billion from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget, which provides NOAA with the satellite launch capability. That will, without question, greatly increase the gap in polar satellite coverage, causing us to forecast the strength and path of hurricanes with less than half the amount of information that we have today.

In addition, about $90 million will be trimmed from the $1-billion-a-year budget of the National Weather Service, which will result in the elimination of about 600 jobs from their 4,500-man workforce. That means the Republicans were lucky that they had their convention in Tampa this summer and not next.

Sequestration hasn’t happened, though, and if Congress uses the remaining days before they leave for the fall campaign wisely, it may not happen. But the quality of weather forecasting will be one of the victims if sequestration goes through, and there are specific regions of the country and industries that will be disproportionately affected.

But back to the original question: Why do Republicans keep having this problem? The answer is that they have become so good at convincing themselves that the public sector doesn’t matter that when they run into problems such as hurricanes they simply don’t know what to do. If you admit that you need government to solve that problem, you might have to make concessions in other places, as well. On the other hand, if you treat agencies that manage such problems as though they don’t matter by appointing incompetent administrators and starving them of the resources necessary to provide adequate service, you end up in the kind of mess we have seen repeatedly in Republican handling with hurricanes.

As John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

There are few facts bigger and more real than a hurricane.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.