WASHINGTON – Maryland’s two senators have asked a Senate committee to hold hearings on cuts to the National Weather Service budget – which some fear could delay hurricane evacuation warnings to Ocean City sun seekers.
The letter sent Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said the members were “deeply concerned” about the $27.5 million budget cut. Officials said the cut could eliminate almost 200 jobs – including some meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center.
Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. asked the senators to take action because of what could happen to his town.
Mathias said without advance hurricane warnings, 300,000 Maryland vacationers and residents could be trapped at the beach during dangerous storms.
“Advance notification is most important,” because adequate time means safety, said Mathias.
But Randee Exler, spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, said the $27.5 million cut to the $350 million operations budget for fiscal year 1997 is due to downsizing and the use of better technologies. She said the results will not be dire.
“Cuts will not impact our warnings,” Exler said.
Although positions will be eliminated, overtime funding will be available should storm systems require more personnel, she said.
Clay Stamp, Ocean City’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, was skeptical. “Playing with Hurricane Center funding puts goose bumps on your arms. What are they thinking?”
Mathias said hundreds of thousands of vacationers have only two routes to safety – state Route 90 and U.S. Highway 50. But only 10 miles inland, the two merge into one, leaving just one main artery for escape.
Getting hurricane forecast information is a race against time, Mathias said. Emergency management teams for Ocean City often wait for forecasts from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. If a forecast is threatening, Mathias said, he has to make a decision to evacuate.
The National Hurricane Center – part of the weather service – will be losing nine to 12 of the current 50 positions, officials said. The center synthesizes information from satellites, radar images, ships at sea and aircraft. The data is plugged into computer models so that meteorologists can forecast a storm’s movement.
Pia Pialorsi, press secretary for the Senate committee, said hearings will be held, but no date has been set. -30-