With predictions of an active hurricane season for Florida, the idea of possible furloughs at local weather offices and at the hurricane center — not to mention a potential gap in aftermath federal assistance — are causing a whole different kind of storm in Palm Beach County.
Bill Johnson, the director of the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center, spoke Monday with Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, about how federal furloughs could possibly affect Palm Beach County in terms of information dissemination during a storm and whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency could help us after we’ve been hit.
FEMA is going through budget cuts and that has Johnson worrying.
Gov. Rick Scott asked for financial help to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy, including $9.1 million for eroded beaches in Palm Beach County. The state appealed and was denied.
FEMA did give the county assistance after Isaac, a tropical storm that dumped as much as 17 inches in areas in the county over two days in August. The county was originally denied the funding but after an appeal, it was granted. Early assessments from 15 Florida counties put the storm’s damage total at $48.3 million.
And late last month, the South Florida Water Management District filed suit against FEMA, alleging they reneged on a pledge of $21.9 million to repair damage caused by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
SFWMD said it was promised federal money for 50 projects to repair damage caused by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Wilma. Water managers said they were told late last year that the projects were no longer eligible for federal aid because the repairs should have been paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, asks a judge to reverse FEMA’s decision and reimburse the water management district for the repairs.
“I’m concerned about the federal declaration process,” Johnson said to a room full of lawmakers and their representatives during Monday’s meeting at the county emergency operation center on Military Trail in suburban West Palm Beach. “It’s a new FEMA.”
Johnson said a meeting with FEMA officials would be helpful, an idea that both Frankel and Deutch said they could arrange.
“We need to be able to count on FEMA,” Deutch said. “We have to do everything we can. There have already been cuts …”
The sequester could affect the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Guard. NOAA oversees the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service, both in Miami, and the National Guard is often sent to areas to clean up a storm’s aftermath.
On Friday, federal officials said they were doing what they could to get ready for a storm season that includes furloughs required by the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said NOAA employees will receive their furlough notices next week. Meanwhile, National Guard technicians who maintain equipment that can be deployed after a hurricane are expected to be furloughed on 11 Mondays throughout the summer, she said.
The furloughs are “the last thing we should be doing” during hurricane season,” she said.
But Rick Knabb, the director of the hurricane center, told The Palm Beach Post on May 8 that if the furloughs do happen, they would be suspended during the event of an emergency.
“There are real safety issues at stake here. We need to act,” Deutch said. “The sequester could have been prevented.”
Staff writer Eliot Kleinberg and The Associated Press contributed to this story.