This makes for really grim reading…and we know who is at fault.
As a tornado is forming, NWS workers are synthesizing a rapid amount of data from radar, satellites, on-the-ground meteorologists, and citizens calling in what they see. The alerts have to be accurate—and they have to be quick.
“The adrenaline is building up. You’re looking at storms that you know are just really bad,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, told The Nation. “It takes a special kind of person because you have to juggle ten or fifteen balls all at the same time, and then make life-and-death decisions based on that.
“It’s an extremely stressful, extremely busy time,” he said. “[It’s like] when an accident is occurring and you have seconds to make a decision as to whether to turn right, or left, or slam on your brakes or whatever—but stretched out over a couple hours. That kind of feeling.”
Five minutes after the tornado touched down on Monday, but twenty minutes before it hit Moore, Oklahoma, the NWS issued a strongly worded “tornado emergency” advisory:
This no doubt saved hundreds of lives in Moore. According to ABC News, the Plaza Towers Elementary School does not have an underground shelter—but the fourth, fifth and sixth grades had enough time to evacuate to a local church, where they remained safe. The entire school building was destroyed.
The NWS deserves enormous credit here. But what if it wasn’t up to the task? That’s an increasingly real possibility. Just this month, Sobien’s group, which represents 4,000 employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which NWS is a part), issued a warning that the budget battles are imperiling crucial NWS functions, and creating “[r]educed efficiency and accuracy for tornado events due to reduced alertness of short staffed offices.” Hurricane monitoring and response is also endangered, along with crucial wildfire monitoring efforts and a wide array of other NWS activities.
Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have targeted NOAA for severe cuts—they came out of the gate proposing a massive 28 percent cut in their first budget that year, which was moderated by the end of the process.
But the assaults on the NOAA budget continued, and the agency couldn’t escape the sequester, which will lop 8.2 percent from the NOAA budget. This lead the acting administrator to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze in March, and four days of mandatory furloughs are on the horizon. (There is already a 10 percent vacancy rate at the agency.)
This is all occurring at an agency that could badly use more money, not less. The satellite equipment there is badly antiquated, and the Government Accountability Office said the “satellite gap” is one of the thirty biggest threats facing the federal government.
“Remember that bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis? The Weather Service is like that bridge a week before it collapsed,” Sobien said. “The strains are happening. I’m just seeing things just not working the way they should be.”
In fact, amidst all the turmoil yesterday, the NWS suffered some notable problems. In the evening a communications outage affected offices in Chicago; Anchorage; Binghamton, New York; and Kentucky, according to Sobien. The Nation confirmed this outage with an official at the NWS office in Chicago.
In addition, Sobien says the NWS office in Midland, Texas—the next office upstream from Oklahoma City that does upper-air surveillance of storms with weather balloons—declined to do a special weather balloon release after the storm to help monitor conditions because of budget concerns. (An official at that office said he was not aware of that particular situation.)
Those ended up being trivial outages, but next time might be different. If a disaster strikes where a NWS office is under-staffed, it’s easy to see how lives could be lost.