In the wake of last week's surprise snow storm and other unexpected weather emergencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is being criticized for its slow pace in installing new, sophisticated technology that would more accurately predict and track storm systems and tornadoes.
The storm that caught the Washington region off guard was well under way by 9:30 a.m Wednesday -- even as the National Weather Service, an arm of NOAA, was predicting "one to two inches with little additional accumulation." By day's end, the area was coping with 10 to 15 inches of snow, and the forecasters were weathering heavy criticism.
NOAA officials contend that the older forecasting equipment now in use by the Weather Service was not a factor in failing to detect the freakish storm, but acknowledge that, in general, newer technology would improve weather prediction.
The agency's current weather equipment, much of it more than 30 years old, is scheduled to be replaced by the early 1990s. Some lawmakers say it has taken years to persuade the Reagan administration to include funds for the new technology.
"NOAA's ability to provide the public with early warnings about severe storms is severely hampered by the agency's reliance on outmoded and outdated equipment and technology which dates back to the 1950s," Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday.
Scheuer, who heads a House subcommittee that oversees the National Weather Service budget, complained that the agency is using antiquated equipment to try to predict life-threatening storms.
"I liken the situation to giving a professional race car driver an Edsel or a Model T and asking him to go out and win the Indy 500," said Scheuer, whose committee has had a long-running battle with NOAA over Reagan administration-imposed budget and personnel cuts.
These cuts, according to a House committee staff member, have spurred competition from private weather forecasting firms. While the government has reduced the number of daily regional forecasts, these private firms are tailoring their services to meet the specific forecasting needs of their clients.
NOAA's plans to modernize its Weather Service technology -- embraced only in the last year by the Reagan administration -- "have been a long time coming," the staff member said. "It's happening now only because we forced it to counter what the Reagan folks were doing."
Joseph Friday, deputy director of the National Weather Service, said that budget issues have no bearing on last week's storm forecast.
"It would be easy to say we have budget problems -- we all have budget problems," Friday said. "But I doubt very seriously if the budget or staffing shortages had anything to do with forecasting the situation we had last week. It was a reflection of the state of the science and the uncertainties that we have in dealing with weather phenomena."
The agency's budget has increased since it began to buy new weather equipment, he said. By the next decade, the Weather Service will have a vastly improved data analysis and communications system, combining satellite and radar readings to better localize and track storms and their effects, according to Friday.
Since 1982, the Weather Service's operations, research and facilities budget -- considered the heart of its warning and forecast activities -- has increased from about $279 million a year to about $344 million, the agency said. Its request for $389 million in fiscal 1988 is pending in Congress.
At the same time, according to the agency's budget office, the number of weather service employes has dropped from 5,000 six years ago to 4,800.
In cases of recent tornadoes, critics say, budget considerations that hamper forecasting can have tragic consequences.
In March 1984, for example, a series of tornadoes charged through North Carolina and South Carolina killing 59 people. A subsequent congressional hearing concluded that staff shortages in the Weather Service hampered the development of a network of tornado spotters. In addition, radar then in use -- and later modernized -- at the Raleigh-Durham airport was faulted for not detecting early signs that tornadoes might be forming.
Scheuer pointed yesterday to a new spate of tornadoes that struck Texas Sunday killing nine persons before any warning as further proof that the nation is paying a price for NOAA's footdragging on modernization.
"The tornado ripped across 50 miles and killed four people before the National Weather Service could issue its first warning," Scheuer said.
George Benton, a professor of meteorology at Johns Hopkins University and an associate administrator of NOAA during the Carter administration, said the battle to modernize the Weather Service goes back to the 1970s. But he said the service had especially suffered during the Reagan years.
Benton said he was pleased that NOAA finally won administration approval for a weather modernization program, adding that the newer technology is far superior to anything the Weather Service has now and should have been put in place much sooner.
"The Weather Service has a weather radar first produced in 1958," he said. "With the rapidly changing technology, any piece of equipment put out in 1958 is older than a Model T. Some TV stations have more modern equipment than the Weather Service."
When fully in place by the mid-1990s, the Weather Service will have what is being called Next Generation Weather Radar. In addition, the service will deploy new weather satellites and an automated ground-level system for taking weather measurements.
Staff writer Paul Hodge contributed to this report.