Budget Cuts Imperil Agency's Ability to Forecast the Weather

Nation's hurricane and tornado centers could be affected

The head of the National Weather Service, Elbert Friday Jr., has an unenviable job these days.

With record-busting blizzards, tornado-related deaths running ahead of usual, and forecasts of another busy hurricane season, Dr. Friday is trying to convince state and local officials that the accuracy and timeliness of his agency's forecasts can survive - at least for now - a nearly 10 percent budget shortfall.

"I'm taking up masochism as a hobby," he quips, following a second trip to Florida in seven days for meetings with lawmakers and emergency planners, who are concerned what the cutbacks will mean for their state.

From the Midwest tornado belt to university labs, scientists say funding cuts are now reaching the point where they are imperiling the nation's ability to do adequate weather prediction - and are undercutting efforts to advance the science.

Their concerns are prompted by a $40-million reduction in the weather service's basic-operations budget this year. Some of these cuts would have occurred anyway, Friday says, once the weather service's modernization program is fully implemented. But as details of the cuts emerged during the past few weeks, they set off alarm bells across the country.

The cuts are "like not renewing the insurance policy on your house," says Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium that operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "It may save money in the short run, but you're reducing the protection you have."

HIS concern echoes that of four top NWS officials. In February, they sent a strong memo to D. James Baker, head of the weather service's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They said tight staffing and the closure of a local office had contributed to an inadequate freeze forecast this winter, costing Florida growers $300 million in crop damage.

Inadequate buoy maintenance, they added, contributed to the death of three Coast Guard members whose rescue boat capsized in February in heavy seas off Washington state. The blacked-out buoy deprived forecasters of key information on wave height in the area.

These incidents "have shaken us deeply, and serve to reaffirm our apprehensions," they wrote. "It is unlikely that we will go through the rest of the winter storm season, the severe weather season, and then the hurricane season without one or more occurrences" that will highlight the "weakened capabilities of the NWS."

For the current fiscal year, the White House offered $17 million in cuts, reflecting its program to streamline government as well as savings made possible by the weather service's modernization program. But the critical cut came from Congress, analysts say, which sliced another $10.5 million in its quest to bring government spending under control. Inflation and congressionally mandated pay raises for federal employees have added to the agency's shortfall.

Although Congress directed that its additional cuts come from the bureaucracy in Washington, the magnitude of its mandate forced Friday to look elsewhere. This included the National Hurricane Center in Miami and the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which tracks tornadoes and severe thunderstorms nationwide. Both support local forecast offices.

In looking for savings, Friday bypassed the modernization program, which he says gets high marks from many emergency planners. He also avoided closing any of the 119 local forecast offices that will remain once modernization is implemented. Nor did he want to cut anything that directly affects the warning services in Miami or Norman.

Yet Norman's capabilities will be undercut, says Joe Schaefer, director of the Storm Prediction Center. By cutting out two overnight outlooks that take advantage of the most current weather observations and computer modeling, emergency planners will be deprived of key information that will reduce their lead time in preparing for storms. The cuts also will eat into the center's ability to develop new ways to help local forecasters.

To stave off cuts planned for the hurricane center, Rep. Clay Shaw Jr. (R) of Florida says he is looking for an extra $300,000 that could be saved. Similarly, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R) of Oklahoma is trying to help the Storm Prediction Center.

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