Proposal cuts forecasters following year of weather disasters

The National Weather Service wants to cut hundreds of forecasting jobs on the heels of a year when weather disasters strafed the nation costing $306 billion in losses and stealing more than 360 lives.

The cuts, outlined in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget, are part of an effort to streamline the 148-year-old agency and end the costly, yet venerated, practice of operating all weather forecasting offices 24-hours-a-day, year-round.

Of 355 weather service positions that would be lost nationwide through attrition, 248 are meteorologists making local forecasts, issuing severe weather alerts and launching twice-daily weather balloons to gather critical data from a layered atmosphere.

Florida has six of the nation’s 122 weather forecasting offices in Key West, Miami, Melbourne, Jacksonville, Tampa and Tallahassee.

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Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, expects one or more of Florida’s offices to be open fewer hours and with less employees — a move he said puts lives at risk in a state with multiple weather torments.

In just 2017, the Sunshine State was beset by tornadoes, drought, wildfires, floods, a March freeze, Tropical Storm Emily, the remnants of Philippe, a Cat 4 hurricane and deadly summertime thunderstorms.

“We are very close to our breaking point right now and if you cut hundreds more positions, we can’t do it,” said Sobien, a former meteorologist in Tampa’s NWS office. “The mission of the National Weather Service is to save lives. This budget would jeopardize that.”

Also on the chopping block is one of two Tsunami Warning Centers and 74 information technology jobs based at local forecasting offices. Slashing the 355 jobs would save about $75.3 million from a total budget request of $1.05 billion.

“Increasing flexibility while streamlining administrative processes at National Weather Service offices will enable the agency to meet demands for its products and services,” a Department of Commerce budget justification paper states.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service referred budget questions to the Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is led by Palm Beach resident Wilbur Ross.

A spokesman for the Department of Commerce said there have been no decisions on what weather forecasting offices will lose employees or shutter their doors part time, but referred to a National Weather Service Operations and Workforce Analysis report released in September.

SEE: Check The Palm Beach Post radar map

The 130-page report includes recommendations for reducing staff at some offices while increasing it at others depending on the number of people served, weather types, weather frequency and population vulnerability. Offices could be rated as having low, medium, high or extreme demands, with those ranked extreme operating with the highest staffing.

A conceptual map shows Key West with a low ranking. Florida’s other five offices are in the medium range.

“While well intentioned, I had some philosophical issues with aspects of this effort,” said James Franklin, the National Hurricane Center’s former chief of the hurricane specialist unit. “There is a lot of emphasis on providing decision support to customers but not necessarily a sufficient emphasis on forecast accuracy, in my view.”

Weather forecasting offices that would be closed during certain hours would have meteorologists at other offices pick up their duties.

Sobien has concerns about people being stretched too thin, or asked to forecast for areas unfamiliar to them.

“The last time I saw any kind of plan, it drew a line up the middle of Florida and everything east of the line was done by Miami and everything west of the line was done by Tallahassee,” Sobien said. “I cannot imagine someone in Tallahassee issuing forecasts and warnings for Tampa.”

Few states escaped 2017 unscathed by weather’s wrath. NOAA estimated in January — without a full account from Puerto Rico — that 362 people were killed during weather-related disasters. Losses were estmated at $306 billion.

“It was a historic year for billion-dollar climate and weather disasters,” said Adam Smith, an economist with NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information in January. “The nation is weather- and climate-conscious for good reason as each geographical region faces a set of unique hazards.”

Miami’s weather service office is responsible for a six-county area, including Palm Beach County, and about 6 million people.

In September, the Miami forecasters were pulling 12-hour shifts to cover Hurricane Irma. After the storm’s Sept. 10 landfall on Cudjoe Key, Miami filled in the gaps for the battered Key West office.

Ten days later Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The Category 4 storm ripped the Doppler radar from its stand at the NWS San Juan office. Communication and the ability to send warnings or weather updates was lost.

Miami was the backup again, with forecasters from Texas, California, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and Virginia called in to help.

“We had as many as 3 to 4 forecasters from other offices across the country who worked two-week tours of duty,” said Robert Molleda, Miami’s warning coordination meteorologist.

The staff cuts to the National Weather Service are not the only weather-related reductions that could affect Florida in NOAA’s proposed budget.

Ending the nationwide Sea Grant program, including closing an office at the University of Florida, would save about $72 million. Closing an office that studies how unmanned aircraft can help with weather prediction would cut three jobs and save $5.3 million. Terminating a tornado study focusing on southeastern states called Vortex SE would save about $5 million.

Between 1985 and 2014, Florida ranked third nationally for the number of tornadoes per year with an average of 59. That’s behind Texas at 140 and Kansas at 80.

“Losing funding for the Vortex SE project would be a big loss,” said Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters. “The Southeast U.S. has the largest death toll from tornadoes, and it is important to conduct research on how we might better anticipate tornado formation so we can issue more timely warnings.”

The Sea Grant program partners with Florida’s public universities to award scholarships and grants to people studying coastal issues, including a new project that looks at how to design skyscraper windows that don’t leak during hurricanes.

Florida Sea Grant Director Karl Havens is optimistic his program will survive.

Sobien is not as hopeful about the weather service cuts.

“There’s a part of me that says they are being forced to do this, that the National Weather Service doesn’t want to do this,” he said. “I was expecting budget cuts, but reducing forecasters was a shock.”

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