Staff shortage buffets the National Weather Service

Last Updated Sep 12, 2017 11:07 AM EDT

The vital work done at the National Weather Service has once again been thrust into the spotlight, thanks to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. However, the agency is so understaffed that a recent Government Accountability Office report warned that "employees are fatigued and morale is low."

As of July, the NWS, which has a workforce of about 4,300, had 668 vacant positions, according to the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO), the union representing NWS employees. Overtime is common in many local offices since positions have gone unfilled for months and sometimes years. According to the GAO, about 5 percent of the agency's total positions were unfilled in 2006. That figure rose to about 11 percent in 2016.   

"The long-term vacancy crisis is degrading service to the American public and jeopardizing the NWS mission of saving lives and protecting property," said the union. "NWSEO hears from members who struggle with health problems and work-life issues due to the overtime work created by these vacancies."  

The importance of the NWS to the U.S. economy can't be understated. About 3.4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- or about $630 billion in 2016 -- is subject to daily variations in weather, said David B. Parsons, director of the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology. Businesses use NWS forecasts in their decision-making process while weather companies use the agency's data to create their own "value-added forecast products," he explained.

In a June letter to President Donald Trump, Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, noted that "fatigued employees make less accurate predictions" and that "less accurate predictions mean more lives are at risk during severe weather events." Crist, whose district includes the NWS' National Hurricane Center, wrote Mr. Trump to urge him to name a head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the NWS.

NWS head Lewis Uccelini has made addressing the agency's hiring backlog his top priority. An agency spokesman said its staff is up to the challenge of dealing with the rest of the Hurricane season, which ends in November. The agency declined to answer specific questions for this story because the staff was busy dealing with Irma, which made landfall in Florida Sunday morning. 

"Our forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, local National Weather Service offices, River Forecast Centers and elsewhere are fulfilling the agency's mission of protecting lives and property as they issue timely and accurate forecasts for these storms," Christopher Vaccaro, an NWS spokesman, said in a statement. 

"We also have forecasters who have deployed to local and state emergency operations centers and who are directly coordinating with local officials and national officials such as FEMA," he added. "As evident during Harvey and Irma, NOAA will always provide the critical forecasts and services that the public, emergency managers and other partners need to make informed decisions and remain safe."

The roots of the NWS hiring problems date to 2013 when NOAA implemented a hiring freeze in response to the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration. When the freeze was lifted the following year, demand for new hires was high. But half of the NWS staff tasked with hiring left the agency during the freeze, according to the GAO.  

As a result, vacant meteorologist positions surged 57 percent between the 2014 and 2016 fiscal years, leaving others to shoulder additional work. "Taking these steps, according to managers and staff, at times led to their inability to complete other key tasks, such as providing severe weather information support to state and local emergency managers," the GAO said.

According to Parsons, NWS employees who have a background in meteorology such as science officers but aren't trained meteorologists are being asked to take on forecasting shifts. Meanwhile, the flow of information to forecasters is increasing thanks to new satellites and computerized weather prediction models.

"I have learned from those working with the NWS that the stress level and work load has increased, especially during hazardous weather," he writes in an email. "Bottom line, the situation does not look good and needs to be improved. "

The work of the NWS is far from over, even as Hurricane Irma has weakened to a tropical depression as it heads north, after pounding Florida with punishing winds and leaving millions of customers without power

The agency's forecasters are also watching Hurricane Jose, currently meandering in the Atlantic off the East Coast. As of Monday, no coastal watches or warnings were in effect. But if that should change, the word will come from those same short-staffed forecasters.

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