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Weather Service Memo Says Cuts Could Curtail Lifesaving Warnings

By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page A25

A National Weather Service official said Congress has cut the agency's budget so drastically that it will impair its ability to warn the public of all sorts of foul weather, which, in turn, "will" lead to "unwarranted loss of life."

The warning, which came in an internal memo, said the budget Congress approved late last year will require the agency to slice a number of operations and programs "critical" to its duties. "The reductions in the FY 05 budget for the National Weather Service (NWS) will have a critical impact on its vital life-saving mission," the memo said. "These impacts will be 'felt' throughout the nation."

The unsigned, undated memo said the agency should expect to be forced to cut its staffing, training for weather forecasters and equipment maintenance. "The logical conclusion over all these impacts is obvious, warning lead times will shorten and tornado detection rates will decrease (as will most other NWS performance standards) leading to the troubling and tragic conclusion that there will be unwarranted loss of life," it said.

John Potts, the budget director of the Weather Service, confirmed the memo's authenticity. But he denied the recent cuts would have such a dramatic and immediate effect on the agency's operations.

"That's way off the charts," he said of the memo's analysis. "That would not be the result."

"We've got a pretty big challenge in front of us this year. But we've got a solid plan," Potts added. "We targeted the cuts this year to areas of the organization where we felt we could cut one time or we could defer some improvement activities that would not, in any way, degrade our current operations and our ability to maintain the services we provide to the public."

He also said the agency's financial concerns were not entirely attributable to the latest round of congressional appropriations, saying many of the problems stem from chronic under-funding.

Potts said he did not know who wrote the memo, when it was issued or to whom it was sent. A spokesman for the agency later said it came from someone in one of its field offices, but declined to provide any further details.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization, a union that released the memo to the news media, also declined to say who wrote it other than to say it came from the agency's "management" in Washington.

The imbroglio comes as Congress begins to debate the agency's -- and the rest of the federal government's -- budget for the next fiscal year. The NWS, which provides meteorological and oceanographic data and forecasts used across the country and around the globe, saw its operating budget shrink in fiscal 2005 by about $13 million, or 2 percent, to $617 million. The agency now faces a cumulative shortfall of $37 million, union and weather service officials said.

Some groups, such as the union, are demanding that lawmakers close the gap. President Bush has proposed increasing the agency's operating budget for fiscal 2006 by $35 million. But union officials said most of that increase is earmarked for new projects and inflationary adjustments, and would do little to make up a shortfall they said was crimping the NWS's day-to-day operations.

"We're not talking about some bureaucratic office position being held vacant. We're talking about somebody who's sitting in Dodge City, Kansas, looking for tornadoes -- his position being vacant. And we're talking about the parts that fix their radar maybe not being available," said Dan Sobien, a Weather Service meteorologist in Tampa, who is also vice president of the union.

"I work in an area where below-freezing temperatures have a significant economic impact on the area -- people look to our forecasts," he said. "If we get it wrong, then everyone's going to pay a whole lot more for tomatoes and citrus and all those other things that they grow down here in the winter. So there's a big economic impact, too -- probably a lot more than the $30 [million] or $40 million" shortfall.

Although denying that the gap is as dire as either the memo or the union suggested, Potts, the budget director, said it would become increasingly worrisome if it is not closed eventually. "It's a potential growing problem that we're looking at," he said. "It does pose some long-term risks."

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