The sobering reality of next week’s budget cut deadline hit home Wednesday as thousands of local Defense Department employees learned they face furloughs if the automatic reductions go forward.

Emails warning employees are expected to be disseminated throughout the region after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he may have to furlough the “vast majority” of the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian workers.

Up to 5,200 Charleston-area military employees could be affected if Congress fails to act by March 1.

Projections are that workers would have to stay home at least one day a week for 22 weeks, probably starting as soon as late April. Affected employees would get at least 30 days of warning time.

The loss to the local economy would be significant. Joint Base Charleston is home to more than 50 military commands, including the Air Force Base, the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, and the high-tech electronics outfit known as SPAWAR, among others.

A spokesman for the Charleston Air Force Base said Wednesday that employees are being told via email. The language mirrors Panetta’s announcement that went through the Department of Defense.

Air Force Capt. Frank Hartnett said he expects all the local installations to alert their civilian employees about what to expect.

The warning comes on top of various other freezes the Charleston base already has undertaken, including curtailing travel and halting spending on items not considered “mission essential.”

Wednesday’s announcement was the biggest movement in weeks as the Pentagon braces for “sequestration,” the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts Congress put in place with a March 1 deadline.

The furloughs are just one segment of the Pentagon’s response as it seeks to cut a total of $46 billion by Sept. 30, when the 2013 fiscal year ends. Even more cuts are expected in years to come.

Panetta also reiterated the weakened state the cuts will create. In anticipation of cuts, the Pentagon already has decided not to send one aircraft carrier back to the Persian Gulf, reducing the U.S. presence there to one carrier, The Associated Press reported.

President Barack Obama has used his legal authority to exempt military personnel funding from sequestration.

While Panetta’s words were geared toward warning federal workers, the sequestration cuts are expected to affect local private-sector defense contractors too. Mary Graham, who is in charge of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s military protection effort, said it will be only a matter of time before their bottom line is affected, along with staff.

“The spigot is being turned off,” Graham said. “It’s going to trickle down in a hurry.”

Locally, some residents who depend on having a steady military budget said they were alarmed at the unknowns and the drastic cuts the Pentagon may have to make.

“I am retired military and am pursuing my degree,” Navy veteran Rochelle Johnson of Goose Creek told The Post and Courier. “The first concern I have is how this might affect my financial aid for school. I am unsure how these cuts will affect the VA. I am sure that my school won’t wait forever for payment from the government and will want the tuition money from me if the VA can’t pay.”

She also worries about pension and medical benefits.

“What I do know,” she said, “is that the military community needs to get together and demand that our elected officials have some military experience so they can have a little empathy.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.