Weather Service says increase in severe events is forcing changes

A Herculean overhaul of the nearly 150-year-old National Weather Service is raising hackles as talk of moving local forecasting hubs, cutting office hours and shuffling meteorological duties moves forward.

The revamp, no small feat for an organization that just this year was able to incorporate lower-case letters into forecast discussions, is aimed at saving lives during such extreme weather events as hurricanes, according to administrators of the 5,000-employee service.

During a Friday presentation of possible changes, NWS Director Louis W. Uccellini and Deputy Director Laura Furgione emphasized that none of the 122 local forecasting offices will be closed, but the service’s “evolution” could include:

• Reducing staff at some offices while increasing it at others depending on weather events or population, including bolstering some offices during tourist season.

• Moving offices so they are closer to emergency operations centers and reducing office hours so some sites are no longer 24/7.

• Using more automated systems, such as to launch the twice-daily weather balloons that sample upper atmospheric conditions.

• Shifting some forecasting duties to regional offices or national hubs so that local meteorologists can work more closely with emergency managers and municipal officials.

“This is about our cookie-cutter structure and getting away from the one-size-fits-all model so that our resources will be located where they need to be,” Furgione said. “All of our offices are manned 24/7 even when our partners don’t need us there and the weather is not demanding.”

But Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said that many of the changes will degrade services, including taking daily forecasting duties away from local offices in the name of presenting a “consistent” message.

Florida has six local forecasting offices, including one in Miami, which covers Palm Beach County.

“They will turn local experts into weather briefers who will just be telling people about what someone in Washington, D.C., decided about the weather,” Sobien said. “You will no longer be able to get the opinion of the best forecaster in the area, who knows the area.”

This may seem like a benign fact, but a situation that occurred in Palm Beach County in April shows the importance of local forecasters who understand the nuances of weather patterns in their region.

On April 15, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., put South Florida on watch for severe weather, but then downgraded the threat level early in the day. The Miami NWS office staff questioned the move and stuck with their earlier predictions that called for severe afternoon thunderstorms.

Dangerous thunderstorms did indeed descend on Palm Beach County that day with golf-ball-size hail, torrential rain and gusting winds. Nine severe storm reports were filed with the NWS for a stretch of Palm Beach County from Palm Beach to Delray Beach.

“The biggest concern with me is taking forecasters out of the forecasting loop,” said Joe Maloney, the NWS Employees Organization steward in Miami. “If there is a national model and you don’t agree with what’s in the forecast, is it just tough luck because that’s what they have to do to be consistent?”

Uccellini and Furgione downplayed those concerns, saying local offices would still be able to provide their own expertise, but could be relieved of the so-called “grid” forecasts that use variables such as temperature, wind and dew point to come up with a final forecast.

“If forecasters are locked in to producing grids, it takes away from them interacting with local officials making decisions on the ground,” Uccellini said.

Maloney counters; “If you are not doing daily grids, you are not intimate with the forecast and it’s hard to give useful information.”

And it’s not just the daily forecasts that are a concern. Offices that don’t operate around the clock won’t be available to emergency managers when emergencies happen outside the regular work day.

Bill Johnson, director of Palm Beach County Emergency Management, said during storms, he’ll get daily briefings from the NWS in Miami about local impacts.

But he said he also speaks with them during individual incidents, such as if there is a there is a hazardous materials spill. Getting information on wind direction and how hard it is blowing would help him make decisions on evacuations.

“It’s not just hurricanes, I’m in contact with them all the time,” Johnson said about the Miami NWS office. “When it’s a beautiful day, maybe not as much, but when we’re getting two inches of rain at 4 p.m., we’re definitely in touch.”

The impetus for changes to the National Weather Service came in 2011 when hundreds of people died in tornadoes despite watches and warnings being issued with “record lead time,” Uccellini said.

Last year, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company was hired to help with the reorganization. Some changes to the NWS will require Congressional approval and plans are expected to be phased in through 2023.

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