Monday, June 11, 2012

Troubles at the National Weather Service

The last few weeks have brought hard times to the National Weather Service. 

A number of media outlets have reported on apparent spending irregularities in which approximately 30 million dollars was taken from certain development budgets to support NWS offices throughout the U.S., a procedure requiring congressional approval that was not secured.

When this story become public (there were dozens of articles in newspapers around the country, examples:  NY Times, WA Post), NWS head Jack Hayes decided it was time to retire (more on Jack Hayes, later).

The National Weather Service has a shortfall of roughly 26 million dollars THIS fiscal year and unless Congress comes up with more funding the Weather Service is going to furlough each of their 4800 employees for 13 days (story here). We are talking about thunderstorm, wildfire, and hurricane season. 

Meanwhile, an inspector general report on May 18 alleged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration paid $43.8 million in award fees or contract extensions without proper justification, mainly for contracts dealing with weather satellites.

And if that is not bad enough, a number of the high level leadership of the Weather Service will be retiring or leaving for greener pastures.   AND the Secretary of Commerce, whose department they are a part of, has been involved in a headline-grabbing series of auto accidents in California.

These folks are in a world of hurt.

 I would like to make a few comments on the above.   I have known Jack Hayes for a number of years--first as head of the AF Weather Agency, head of the NWS Office of Science and Technology, and for the last five years the leader of the National Weather Service.   He is a highly committed and honorable individual.  A few years ago, when there was a great deal of uncertainty about the coastal radar, he called me...he gave
Dr. Jack Hayes
 his word the radar would go in and quickly.  No more opposition or delays, as had gone on under his predecessors.   He kept his word.   Remember my blog a few months ago about state of the numerical weather prediction in the U.S.?   Guess, who called a few days later to talk it over and to assure me of his commitment to change things....Jack Hayes.    I could give you a dozen more examples like this.  He was concerned, engaged and a straight shooter--as well as a nice guy.

The National Weather Service has been underfunded for years.  According to the general counsel of the NWS employees organization, NOAA higher-ups knew about the structural deficit for a long time as well as the standard practice of covering employee salary increases from other pots of money.

The NWS has never had enough funds for state-of-the-art computers or to support outside research that could advance weather prediction.  Desperate for funds, they recently proposed removing IT support from its offices by providing remote support (you can imagine how well that would work!).  It appears that Jack Hayes was doing what he could to keep the wheels on the bus of a critical agency.  And there is no suggestion of funds disappearing or being used for personal needs.

NOAA leadership seems far more interested in climate and ocean issues than weather prediction, and this had been true for a while (yes, even during the Bush administration).  As an example, there was a push to form a National Climate Service--a parallel organization to the NWS.  Congress pulled the plug on this late last year.

My hope is that now that the underfunding of the NWS is out in the open, congressional leadership will take steps to ensure that this agency, with critical responsibilities for life and property, is funded at an appropriate level.  They would be well advised to taking a hard look at whether NOAA belongs in Commerce, and if the current structure of weather related research and operations spread over the NWS and NOAA makes sense.


Justin Wilkerson said...

Good Post cliff, I was wondering if you would write one about these recent troubles for the NWS.

While I too hope the NWS would get more funding. I feel it is more likely it might getter harder to get the funding because of the "misappropriations" of money we already have. It is something I can see Congress saying.

On the topic of NOAA being part of Commerce, maybe there won't be a Department of Commerce much longer?

This news is from January. I wasn't able to find anything more recent, so I'm not sure if Obama is still trying to do it or if the plan has been nixed (may have to wait until after elections?)

How do you feel about NOAA being part of Interior instead?

One more thing I wanted to mention. On the topic of improving NWP in the U.S. I was wondering if you'd heard about the new supercomputer NCAR is getting.

Here is the article I found on it:

richard583 said...

.. Would that it weren't an election year. — And that Science, could move more to the forefront regarding peoples' interests.

Jimmy Jet said...

I percieve Mr Hayes and others acted with integrity and best judgement to best use funds. Something I doubt Conress ha the capacity to do.

Unknown said...

Hmmm. Cure the problem of an agency that fiddles with your money by giving it even more of your money to fiddle with.

mjgrota said...

Good news is that Radm Dave Titley is joining NWS. He is smart and experienced with tough issues. I spent a short time at see with him in 1978 when he was a young Ltjg on the USS Farragut. I claim some credit in talking him into joining the Navy's Met/Oceano Community. We rode out a storm force Mistral. One of my best forecasts ever.

mjgrota said...

Rooster The Kid said...

A close friend in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I lived and worked for 18 years, works for the contractor who does the twice daily upper air balloons. Their last day is August 4th then there will be no one qualified to do the balloons releases, including the NWS. Right now the Fairbanks station is scheduled to be shut down and several other radiosonde stations in Alaska might be shuttered as well. Seems like any closures won't bode well for the forecast models!