Disaster readiness may be at risk, Florida warns

27 07 2013

As noted in this article, Florida’s top emergency manager is concerned that federal budget cuts have degraded the ability of the federal government to respond to disasters.  The Florida, maparticle below was published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on July 23, 2013.   The author of the article is William E. Gibson, a reporter from the newspaper’s Washington Bureau.  Given the fact that we are in the middle of the 2014 Hurricane Season, it is hoped that Mr. Koon’s fears do not come to true.

State officials are sounding the alarm that federal budget cuts have depleted the line of defense against powerful storms just when Florida faces the busiest part of hurricane season.

If disaster bears down on Florida, National Guardsmen are prepared to rush in with high-water vehicles, helicopters and emergency equipment to help rescue stricken residents and stranded motorists.

But Bryan Koon, Florida’s top emergency manager, fears that federal resources will be drained if the state faces a repeat of 2004 and 2005, when six hurricanes and several tropical storms ripped through the state. The 2013 hurricane season is forecast to be stormier than normal, and August to October is usually the busiest part.

“My concern is not necessarily with the first storm. It’s not with the life-saving things that will happen in the first 24 or 48 hours,” said Koon. “But if we have multiple storms, if we have a longer-term event, they will not have the flexibility, or the manpower, to deal with that kind of situation.”

Federal budget cuts, known as a sequester, have forced about 1,000 Florida National Guard members to take 11 furlough days — unpaid time off — through September.

It also lopped $1 billion from the nation’s disaster relief fund. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency says the remaining $10.2 billion should be enough to deal with disasters through the fiscal year ending in September.

FEMA workers have been spared from furloughs, but a hiring slowdown left the agency with hundreds of vacant jobs nationwide. The sequester also pinched state and local disaster preparedness grants.

“If there is a hurricane, we may have issues getting equipment ready because of the lost time and effort,” said Lt. Col. James Evans, of the Florida National Guard. “We can still support the governor and the state the way we always have, but now we may need extra time to get from one part of Florida to another in the midst of a crisis.”

The Florida National Guard already is backlogged while restoring 6,000 pieces of equipment returned from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Equipment that can be used for disaster duty includes Humvees, helicopters and trucks with a high wheelbase that can ford several feet of water.

“Last year, during Tropical Storm Debby, we used their high-water vehicles to go out and get folks that we were unable to get to otherwise,” Koon said. “They can help us distribute food, water and ice after an event. During some of the older storms, when Florida wanted to get schools open, they trained National Guardsmen to be bus drivers.”

The sequester also has reduced disaster training time for about 10,000 part-time Guardsmen, sometimes called weekend warriors. Gov. Rick Scott warned Florida’s U.S. senators the cuts will strain personnel and resources “critical to preventing the loss of life or property in the event of disaster.”

A delay in moving equipment, Scott said, “means that our state’s timetable for pre-positioning resources and supplies must be significantly altered — at an even greater cost to the state, to say nothing of the impact on public safety.”

Another budget battle looms this fall, and failure to resolve it could extend the cuts another year.

“If the sequester doesn’t go away in next year’s budget, we may be looking at 22 furlough days next year,” said Evans. “That will keep compounding over the years as long as the sequester remains in effect.”