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.



  1. expdoc

    I will respond to this post as soon as I get through the security line at the airport.

  2. Brian Opsahl

    Don’t go through the scanner Doc,they might find you have a heart and a brain…lol

    If I was one of those TSA guys I would ask if your a republican or democrat that way I would know who was getting the FULL body cavety search and who wasn’t…and yes im kidding….


  3. Robert

    If the corporations needed the national weather service system as part of their revenue stream, there’d be no cuts to it.

  4. Looks like exdoc got help up by the TSA… must be all the budget cuts making the lines longer than normal.

  5. expdoc


    Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.


    The NWS claims that it supports industries like aviation and shipping, but if they provide a valuable contribution to business, it stands to reason business would willingly support their services. If that is the case, the Service is just corporate welfare. If they would not, it is just a waste.

    As for hurricanes, the insurance industry has a compelling interest in understanding them. In a world without a National Weather Service, the insurance industry would probably have sponsored something very like the National Hurricane Center at one or more universities. Those replacements would also not be exploited for political purposes.

    Private weather services do exist, and unsurprisingly, they are better than the NWS. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the National Weather Service was twelve hours behind AccuWeather in predicting that New Orleans would be affected. Unlike the NWS, AccuWeather provides precise hour-by-hour storm predictions, one of the reasons private industry supports them.

    It is not just random mistakes in crises either. Forecast Watch has found that the National Weather Service predictions of snow and rain have an error rate 20 percent higher than their private alternatives. “All private forecasting companies did much better than the National Weather Service,” their report concludes. In 2008, they found that the NWS’s temperature predictions were worse than every private-sector competitor including the Weather Channel, Intellicast, and Weather Underground. Even NWS’s online ZIP code search for weather reports is in some cases totally inaccurate, giving reports for areas hundreds of miles away.

  6. Craig Knauss


    You did notice that this was under “opinion”, right? And you know what they say about opinions and asses, right? And you know the FAA got most of its weather information from the NWS for your flight, right? And most of the radio and TV stations get their information from NWS radar, right? And while lots of TV stations have their “weather cameras” very few have any long range weather radar, right? And they don’t have weather satellites either, right?

    Where the differences are is interpretation of the weather data. And that is “local” weather data. Few stations can handle national weather patterns, the source of which is almost always NWS.

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