Senior Commerce Department officials will go to the National Weather Service's Northern Virginia office this morning to offer what some might call a politically dangerous forecast: More accurate weather predictions are just around the corner.
Commerce Secretary William Daley said yesterday he has no doubt the Weather Service will deliver. Today's ceremony at the Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Sterling celebrates the completion of a key component in the sometimes tortuous 10-year effort to modernize the Weather Service, a Commerce agency.
It has been a controversial journey that Daley, a Chicago pol who grew up in a well-lubricated political machine, never expected to have to make when he took charge of Commerce in 1997. But then, as he acknowledged in an interview, he didn't realize "the power of the Weather Service people."
When the service attempted to transfer one meteorologist and two secretaries out of the National Hurricane Center, Daley said, "I heard from every senator, believe me." To his amazement, Weather Service employees--"these guys that work for me"--were on the "Today" television show denouncing the planned transfer and attacking him.
Daley realized he wasn't in Chicago anymore and that the Weather Service would be taking a lot of his time.
Yesterday, Daley said he can see the payoff a lot of his critics doubted he could deliver. The Weather Service recently completed its $550 million Advanced Weather Interactive Processing Systems (AWIPS), a key component in the $4.5 billion Weather Service's modernization, on time and within the budget Daley promised Congress.
The computer-driven system, which helps forecasters better access weather data, has already begun to pay big dividends, Daley said. The average warning time for tornadoes is 11 minutes, up from six in 1993, the flash-flood warning time is 52 minutes, up from 22, and the severe-thunderstorm warning time is 18 minutes, up from 16. And overall forecasts are better. "Today's three-to-four-day forecast is as accurate as the two-day forecast was 15 years ago," a Commerce fact sheet brags.
With AWIPS in place, Daley and John F. Kelly Jr., the retired Air Force general he recruited to run the Weather Service, believe forecasts will be getting even better. Their goals include making overall forecasts for the next six to 10 days as accurate as next-day forecasts.
None of the changes already in place has come easily, as Daley and Kelly acknowledged in separate interviews yesterday. Joe Friday, the popular head of the Weather Service, was removed and new management was put in place.
"I think there was no real leadership and no one was responsible," Daley said. "Take AWIPS. There was a team. Fine. Who the hell's head is on the block if something goes wrong here? The system was supposed to cost $250 million and its costs went to $550 million. What's happened here?"
With Kelly in charge, Daley said he found someone willing to take responsibility and enforce budgetary discipline on the service.
Friday, who retired from government last summer, said AWIPS costs soared when a department group took control of the system away from the Weather Service. "I think the Weather Service modernization has been a success, and I'm glad I was able to be a substantial part of that," Friday said.
Kelly praised Daley for giving him "top cover" for enforcing a new culture on the service's 4,800 employees and $680 million operating budget. "I'd go eyeball to eyeball with any weather service in the world," he said.
While Daley is enthusiastic, too, he cautions: "We can predict, but we can't change the weather. You can do it only so well. Still, it's Mother Nature you're dealing with, and she'll throw you a curve ball."