WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rick Santorum, who has sponsored legislation to limit the information that the National Weather Service can provide to the public, told radio reporters this week that Congress should investigate whether the federal agency's initial warnings on the severity of Hurricane Katrina were adequate.
The Pennsylvania Republican's remarks drew fire from a union representing employees of the National Weather Service, which is a subsidiary of the U.S. Commerce Department's National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. They also were closely scrutinized by Democrats, who have contended that his legislation is intended to benefit private weather companies, at least one of which has contributed to his campaign.
During a conference call that Santorum conducted with Pennsylvania radio reporters Thursday, a public radio correspondent asked him about the weather service's performance in preparing Gulf Coast residents for Hurricane Katrina and whether the rescue and recovery response could have been improved if his legislation had been law.
Santorum said he didn't think the weather service had given "sufficient warning" initially about the hurricane's path or what its impact would be when it hit Florida. He said he was "not going to suggest there were any major errors," but that the adequacy of the warnings should to be investigated along with other aspects of how government agencies have dealt with Katrina.
"The expectation was that [the hurricane] was not going to hit Florida with much fury, and it ended up being a Category 1 hurricane and did a lot more damage than I think was ever anticipated," Santorum said in the recorded radio interview.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who heads the Senate Commerce Committee's Disaster Prediction and Prevention Subcommittee, yesterday praised the National Weather Service. "After reviewing the actions taken by the National Weather Service, I am convinced that this was one of the most accurate hurricane predictions we have ever seen," he said in a statement.
"As early as Friday night [Aug. 26], almost 60 hours before Katrina made landfall, the National Hurricane Center warned the region with reliable data showing the largest storm since Camille landing squarely between Louisiana and Mississippi. By Saturday night, over 30 hours before landfall, they issued a specific warning to the city of New Orleans, predicting storm surge flooding of up to 25 feet. These early and accurate forecasts saved countless lives along the Gulf Coast," DeMint said.
But Santorum stood his ground. "I continue to believe that we need a robust National Weather Service that is focused on its core mission and committed to getting it right," he said in a statement yesterday. "There are serious consequences for everyone when that is not the case, so I hope that, as we go forward to review the various aspects related to Hurricane Katrina, that we also look at whether the forecasts and warnings provided the necessary information to preserve lives and property."
Santorum's legislation, Senate Bill 786, would forbid the commerce secretary from allowing the weather service to offer a public product or service that could be provided by the private sector, except in the case of severe weather warnings, or if the private sector doesn't want to offer the service, or if the service is required under international aviation agreements.
Santorum has acknowledged that his legislation could help protect jobs at private weather firms -- including at least 14 in Pennsylvania, according to his staff -- but said its larger purpose was to make sure that the weather service focused on its key mission of warning citizens about the most severe weather.
Santorum has received at least $7,000 from employees of AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa., according to Federal Election Commission reports. AccuWeather provides weather data to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and post-gazette.com.
The senator's remarks Thursday, also circulated by a Democratic Party official, drew fire from the National Weather Service Employees Organization, whose Web site has urged members to oppose Santorum's legislation.
In a statement, union President Paul T. Greaves defended the performance of weather service employees and said Santorum was merely continuing his "misguided crusade" against the agency. Greaves said it was unfortunate that the senator "would try to use this tragedy to push his own agenda."
Earlier this week, Santorum was criticized by officials from the campaign of his likely 2006 Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., for comments he had made about New Orleans residents who did not follow instructions to evacuate. In a WTAE-TV interview about Hurricane Katrina last weekend, Santorum said there "may be a need to look at tougher penalties" for those who fail to heed evacuation warnings.
Casey's campaign manager said the senator's comments showed "an incredible amount of insensitivity" toward poor people who were caught in the hurricane zone without transportation. Santorum later said his remark was not aimed at those without means to evacuate, as was the case with many low-income New Orleans residents.
Maeve Reston can be reached at 202-488-3479 in firstname.lastname@example.org .