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Tough Budgeting Places National Weather Service In an Uneasy Orbit

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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.

Almost a year after Congress learned of a budget scandal at the National Weather Service, lawmakers are still trying to get a realistic estimate of what it costs to run the nation’s first line of defense against the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms.

The National Weather Service has struggled in recent years to find money to operate a nationwide network of forecasting offices while also adding new technology intended to improve predictions. That’s raised doubts about the reliability of a program that produces about 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings a year, aiding citizens who may be in the path of dangerous storms, farmers trying to protect crops and airlines planning their daily schedules.

The administrator and chief financial officer of the National Weather Service resigned last year after the discovery that millions of dollars had been shuffled without notice from technology accounts in fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011. The money was used to cover shortfalls in forecasting offices, where salaries are the key cost. There has been no allegation that anyone profited personally from these actions, described in a later investigation as “colorizing” or “washing” money. But agencies are not supposed to take such actions, called reprogramming, without consent from Congress.

Now, the agency’s budget is something of a mess and congressional appropriators have demanded that the NWS give them at least a timeline for when it will be able to deliver a realistic budget. When President Barack Obama signed the fiscal 2013 spending package (PL 113-6) into law March 26, he triggered a 30-day deadline for the agency to deliver a report to Congress with detailed information about how it will prevent future unauthorized shifting of money between accounts.

“Concern remains that the inappropriate movement of funds within the NWS could have jeopardized the NWS’ ability to accurately forecast the weather and that these actions may negatively impact the NWS’ ability to make forecast improvements in the future,” appropriators said in a report that accompanied the spending package. “In addition, dissatisfaction remains with NOAA’s failure to determine the true costs necessary to support NWS operational needs.”

With the sequester stripping $85 billion from federal operating expenses by September, the weather service is facing the June 1 start of the hurricane season with some delays in the development of newer computer systems and a hiring freeze in place. The union representing the agency’s forecasters says that will exacerbate the short staffing that’s already led to fatigue and constant shift-switching at the network of 122 forecasting offices.

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