Undermining preparedness: National Weather Service cutbacks

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capitol_dome“We are risking lives with bad decisions on weather funding, staffing, satellite capacity,” says the president of the American Meteorological Society. The Washington Post reported last week: “Budget woes and multiple system failures at the National Weather Service in the past week, not to mention staffing shortages, are raising concerns that its ability to warn the public of hazardous weather could crack at any time.”

Jason Samenow reported in the Washington Post on May 23:

Weather Service systems crumbling as extreme weather escalates

… As painfully obvious from the recent events in Oklahoma, tornado season is in full gear. Meanwhile, hurricane season is a week away.  Yet budget woes and multiple system failures at the National Weather Service in the past week, not to mention staffing shortages, are raising concerns that its ability to warn the public of hazardous weather could crack at any time.

In the past 5 days alone, a telecommunications outage near Chicago made it difficult for NWS forecasters to issue warnings, a major weather satellite failed, the website for the entire NWS Southern Region went down, and a NWS official in tornado alley declined to launch a weather balloon citing budget concerns.

These problems are symptomatic of insufficient funding and dated infrastructure, advocates for more generous NWS budgets say. …

Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, used the Oklahoma twister’s aftermath to express significant concerns about the various troubles facing the NWS.

“I, and other colleagues, have repeatedly warned that we are risking lives with bad decisions on weather funding, staffing, satellite capacity, etc.,” Shepherd wrote on his Facebook page.

“We need a national response, sound policy/decisions, no posturing on sequester/budgets,” Shepherd said.

George Zornick in The Nation:

Budget Cuts Endanger Agency That Saved Countless Lives in Oklahoma

… One of the best ways to prevent high body counts when tornadoes barrel through populated areas is to warn residents ahead of time—which is the job of the [National Weather Service]. They did it well yesterday, issuing early warnings allowed countless people to seek shelter before mayhem arrived.

But the NWS has, in recent years, suffered under serious budget restraints placed on it by deficit hawks in Congress and the White House. Far from the public view, the NWS is starting to come apart at the seams—and the full effects of the sequester haven’t even been felt yet. So what if, next time, the NWS isn’t able to do its job as well? …

Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have targeted NOAA [of which the NWS is a part] for severe cuts—they came out of the gate proposing a massive 28 percent cut in their first budget that year, which was moderated by the end of the process.

But the assaults on the NOAA budget continued, and the agency couldn’t escape the sequester, which will lop 8.2 percent from the NOAA budget. This led the acting administrator to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze in March, and four days of mandatory furloughs are on the horizon. (There is already a 10 percent vacancy rate at the agency.) …

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