By Joe Beck
A letter from U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10, to a top administrator at the Department of Commerce signals growing concern about planned furloughs of meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Sterling and elsewhere.
Wolf's letter sent Wednesday to Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the Department of Commerce, cites the tornado that killed at least 24 people in Oklahoma as an example of the risks of allowing the Weather Service's forecasting capabilities to deteriorate as a result of forced budget cuts.
The Weather Service's Sterling office at Dulles International Airport is located in Wolf's district and provides weather forecasts for parts of four states, including the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Wolf reminded Blank of his earlier opposition to a proposed four-day furlough in fiscal year 2013 on all employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the Weather Service.
"The severe weather events in Oklahoma this week have further convinced me that we should not take any chance that avoidable furloughs might result in a degradation of weather prediction and forecasting services," Wolf wrote. "I cannot support your current spending plans and I again urge you to take the necessary actions to avoid furloughs at NOAA in fiscal year 2013."
Wolf added a handwritten note to the letter, telling Blank, "there must be better places to save the money. I will work with you."
Kyle C. Struckmann, an emergency response meteorologist with the Weather Service in Sterling, said the Dulles forecasting center is already feeling the effects of a hiring freeze imposed on March 27 as a result of the forced budget cuts.
Struckmann said the freeze has created five vacancies among the normal workforce of 28 forecasters, meteorologists and supervisors at the center.
Struckmann said the staff has shuffled scheduling to adapt to the reduced workforce. He spoke after meeting Wednesday with Marti Viggiano, deputy emergency manager for Warren County, in her Front Royal office.
"It certainly has had an impact," Struckmann said of the freeze. "We're doing our best to work around it."
The furloughs would create an additional strain on the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations of the forecasting center, Struckmann said. The proposed furlough days are July 5, July 19, August 5 and August 30.
"Our work is important to us, and we're doing everything we can to get our forecasts out," Struckmann said.
The forced budget cuts began taking effect in March as a result of a process otherwise known as sequestration.
Sequestration grew out of the Budget Control Act of 2011 proposed by President Obama and backed by members of both parties in Congress, including Wolf. The act was designed to allow the United States to raise its debt limit. Many economists, government officials and business leaders feared a global economic collapse would ensue if the United States defaulted on its debt to other nations.
A special congressional committee was supposed to come up with a plan for cutting the national debt over time, but couldn't reach an agreement. Its failure led to the forced budget cuts now affecting the Weather Service and other agencies.
Jill Shatzen, Wolf's press secretary, said he voted for the Budget Control Act to head off a default on the debt.
"It was a vote to allow the supercommittee to do its job and present a plan for reducing the debt," she said. "He never knew it would fail to come up with a viable option to deal with the debt limit."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com