Unbelievable! The National Weather Service Cannot Pay Its Bills

The National Weather Service (NWS) – a truly essential federal agency -- literally cannot pay its bills, according to Bloomberg. Some vendors may have to wait a year before getting paid! 

As we saw last night and earlier today with extensive tornado (example below) and flood damage from Texas to Florida that caused more than 700,000 people to lose power, the NWS is essential to save lives, avert property loss, and provide the atmospheric and oceanic data needed for personal safety, commerce, and science across the Nation and the World. 

Lake Charles this morning 

Slidell, MS Tornado this morning

Nevertheless, the NWS, from my observations, is troubled agency. The unpaid bill and other issues are significantly worse than described in the article. For example,

  • ·      The water was turned off for a day at the NWS office that serves the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.
  • ·      The essential weather balloons at Del Rio, Texas, were interrupted for four months.

What happens when a radar -- astonishing consumers of electricity -- gets shut down because the electric company has not been paid -- on a day with a tornado or hurricane approaching?!

The cause of many issues is the fact the NWS has to exist under the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which has not had a weather scientist or someone focused on weather since its first administrator from 1970-74. A shocking number of people at NOAA know nothing about weather and don’t seem to care to learn. The parent agency of NOAA, the U.S. Department of Commerce, is worse. Think about it: while Commerce/NOAA could have begun the rollout of the new accounting system (responsible for the bill paying fiasco, see pink link above) with the Census Bureau or National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which, while necessary, are not 24/7/365 operations, instead, Commerce began with the one agency under their purview that is “mission critical” – if the mission suffers, lives are lost.

How essential is the National Weather Service?

As it is spring, let’s use tornadoes as an example. Most readers are too young to remember a time before the Weather Bureau (the name of the NWS until 1970) not only didn’t issue tornado warnings but was afraid the word “tornado.” They believed its use might cause panic (really). Until that changed in the 1950’s, tornadoes that caused one hundred or more fatalities were surprisingly common. Last month, we observed the 99th commemoration of a single tornado that killed 695 people in 1925. We don’t see catastrophic death tolls of that nature now because of the (usually taken for granted) tornado warning system. But, the second the warning system fails, deaths skyrocket. 

On May 22, 2011, a tornado began forming over far southeast Kansas near the Missouri border. For reasons that are not fully understood to this day, the NWS stated the incipient tornado would move northeast, which would miss Joplin to the north, rather than its actual direction of movement which was east -- straight toward the heart of Joplin. The NWS would misstate the direction two more times before the arrival of the tornado. The people of Joplin were lulled into a false sense of security. A television station even had its live “weather camera” pointed in the wrong direction. 

Related to the direction-of-movement errors, local emergency management – known for sounding its tornado sirens even for relatively minor storms – inexplicably made the decision not to sound the sirens when the tornado warning (with the wrong direction of movement) was issued for Joplin. The people of Joplin were sitting ducks: and, 161 died – by far the worst single tornado death toll since the civilian federal warning system began in 1957. The Joplin Tornado was a violent storm and violent tornadoes kill people. Had the warnings been of good quality, it is likely that dozens of people would still have died – but in the city where basements are standard features of homes -- meaning adequate shelter was mere seconds away – the death toll never would have been close to 161. 

The lesson? When the warning system hiccups, the death tolls immediately return to pre-tornado warning numbers. Except that today, the United States has a far greater population than in 1957. 

 One would think, with the natural progress of science, tornado warnings would have improved since that awful day in 2011. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Tornado warnings are significantly less accurate than in 2011. Scientifically straightforward tornado situations were poorly warned 17 times in 2023 and six of them, sadly, caused fatalities. 

Listing all of the issues currently being experienced by the National Weather Service is beyond the scope of this single essay but you will find many of them covered on this blog. 

For 12 years, I have been – strongly and urgently – advocating Congress create an expert, non-political Natural Disaster Review Board (NDRB) to advise the nation, and specifically, the National Weather Service, FEMA, emergency managers and others in the business of forecasting and warning of extreme weather and related threats (tsunamis, for example). 

There are bi-partisan bills before Congress to do just that and, while they need some tweaking, are a good start. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been a huge success. Travel in our nation is far safer that it would be if the NTSB didn’t exist. Great Britain and other nations have something similar to the NDRB – the United States cannot go any longer without one.  

One supposition I would make regarding the future findings of the NDRB is that it will recommend the NWS be moved out from under NOAA and Commerce -- which are suffocating the National Weather Service -- and become an independent agency again (as it was until 1966) with a clearly defined mission. 

 I urge the Biden Administration to support this measure and for Congress to quickly hold hearings on creating a Natural Disaster Review Board. 

We are moving into the thick of the tornado season with hurricane season immediately after on June first. If we don’t act, another Joplin – or worse – is inevitable. 


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