Lesson of OK twister: Republican-backed cuts to Weather Service budget pose big risks
David Sirota NAILS IT:
Was the severe weather system culminating in yesterday’s Oklahoma City tornado intensified — or even created — by climate change? That question will almost certainly be batted back and forth in the media over the next few days. After all, there is plenty of scientific evidence that climate change intensifies weather in general, but there remain legitimate questions about how — and even if — it intensifies tornadoes in specific.
One thing, however, that shouldn’t be up for debate is whether or not we should be as prepared as possible for inevitable weather events like tornadoes. We obviously should be — but there’s an increasing chance that we will not be, thanks to the manufactured crisis known as sequestration.
As the Federal Times recently reported, sequestration includes an 8.2 percent cut to the National Weather Service. According to the organization representing weather service employees, that means there is “no way for the agency to maintain around-the-clock operations at its 122 forecasting offices” and also means “people are going to be overworked, they’re going to be tired, they’re going to miss warnings.”
Summarizing the problem, the American Institute of Physics put it bluntly: “The government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error, and the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.”
The good news is that the National Weather Service station in Norman, Okla., had a warning in effect for 16 minutes before the most recent Oklahoma City tornado hit. That’s better than the 13 minute average so, thankfully, more people probably had more time than usual to evacuate or find safe shelter.
But what about the next time around? Will we be as ready as we can and should be? The answer is maybe not.
Though the past few years saw a record number of billion-dollar weather cataclysms, the weather service remains a perennial target for budget cuts and already has nearly a 10 percent employment vacancy rate — and those realities may be damaging its long-term ability to warn the public about severe weather events.