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Tough Budgeting Places National Weather Service In an Uneasy Orbit

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
The National Weather Service has struggled to find money to operate a nationwide network of forecasting offices while also adding new technology to improve predictions of storms such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged portions of the Northeast.

This short staffing comes even though the Weather Service has benefited from some relative congressional generosity in recent years. Appropriators last year signed off on a $36 million reprogramming request for the NWS after the improper budgeting was made public, a financial move that made official more reductions of technology accounts in order to prevent furloughs. For fiscal 2013, the appropriators provided the National Weather Service with $926.1 million, a $34 million increase. The bulk of the weather service budget always goes toward the Local Warnings and Forecasts base budget — $655 million in the case of fiscal 2013.

Even amid the current budget crunch, the House lawmaker with direct responsibility for the weather service’s parent Commerce Department has implored the department to make certain the nation’s forecasting offices have the money they need to help the public cope with tornadoes, hurricanes and other storms.

“This committee will be prepared to reprogram,” Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said at a March 5 hearing. “They should look far out on the horizon. We can find other programs to take it from. No one should be able to say that there have been damages, loss of life or anything because the weather bureau says, ‘We don’t have the money.’”

Wolf’s Senate counterpart, Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., has long worried that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has let its focus on troubled satellite programs overshadow its needs for weather-forecasting operations. Mikulski, who has proposed moving management of the satellite program to NASA, is an ardent booster of Maryland-based NOAA’s forecasting unit.

“Many people don’t realize that the wonderful weather reports they get in their communities come because of the NOAA weather administration,” Mikulski said in 2009. “We all love The Weather Channel, but The Weather Channel depends on NOAA.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, says he is confident Congress will get better information on the weather service’s needs for the next budget cycle. To Fattah, the NWS is one of the federal agencies on the front lines of major battles between Democrats and Republicans over the size of the federal government and the programs the public depends on.

“The question is, are we willing to make the decisions needed to fund them,” Fattah said.

The National Weather Service employees union argues that the program’s employees already have seen the effects of restrained domestic spending. Excluding supervisors, the size of the weather service’s workforce has dropped by 193 people since 2010 to 3,684, according to the union.

“Even on fair weather days, offices report overtime and temporary promotions to fill the gaps, leaving forecasters fatigued from working off rotation shifts or shifts with a quick turnaround,” Daniel Sobien, the union president, said in a statement. “In one office, it was called, ‘a scheduling nightmare in which no one works their regular schedule anymore.’”

Sobien said in an interview that short staffing is affecting the quality of the forecasts. The agency has support in Congress, he said, but faces challenges within NOAA.

“For some reason, they weren’t asking for enough money all along,” he said. “NOAA has a lot of competing interests and its own priorities.”

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