WEATHER SERVICE CUTS
JUNE 12, 1997
A storm is brewing over a proposal by National Weather Service to eliminate 200 jobs. The cuts would effect marine and aviation weather forecasts, and tornado and hurricane warning centers. Tom Bearden reports.
TOM BEARDEN: In 1995, Hurricane Opal sent shockwaves through the staff of the National Hurricane Center in Miami tracking its movements across the Gulf of Mexico. Miles Lawrence was on the midnight shift.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of the weather and federal agencies.
National Weather Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admininstration
MILES LAWRENCE, Hurricane Forecaster: Well, that was awesome because Opal strengthened from a Category II hurricane to a Category IV hurricane in just a few hours. And the pressure dropped so fast I don't think I've ever seen the pressure fall so many millibars in such a short period of time.
TOM BEARDEN: Because it was the middle of the night, people in North Florida in the path of the hurricane were asleep. There was no way to warn them. Fortunately, Opal weakened as quickly as it had strengthened. While there was a great deal of destruction in the Pensacola area, no lives were lost. But the quick movements of Opal startled everybody.
MILES LAWRENCE: I've been tracking hurricanes for a long time, and that's the first time I've ever seen anything happen quite that fast.
TOM BEARDEN: When we visited the Hurricane Center in April, forecasters were telling anybody who would listen that their ability to track hurricanes was about to be seriously degraded. Weather Service administrators in Washington had decided to eliminate some 200 jobs, jobs affecting marine and aviation weather forecasts, local forecast information for the public, and, most important, jobs affecting tornado and hurricanes warnings. Half a dozen people in the Hurricane Center were about to be told their services were no longer required. Jerry Jarrell told us he was worried about being able to deal with the 1997 hurricane season.
JERRY JARRELL, National Hurricane Center: We're losing somewhere just under a quarter of our people. Now that means that the ones that are left behind, three people will have to do the work that four people did last year, and the media people that were around here know what condition we were in near the end of the season last year; we were pretty tired puppies.
TOM BEARDEN: Some of the jobs to be eliminated were in the adjoining room--at the Tropical Prediction Center. Staffers here assist hurricanes forecasters like Miles Lawrence during those very tense hours when they're trying to figure out where a storm will strike and the public waits on their every word.
MILES LAWRENCE: It's the support staff that's going to be cut, and I certainly wouldn't want to try to have to do the kind of job that is required during a landfalling hurricane with less support staff than we have right now.
TOM BEARDEN: The concerns of the staff at the National Hurricane Center threw a scare into Billy Wagner as well. He's the director of emergency management for the Florida Keys--the 140 mile long stretch of islands that end at Key West. During a hurricane Wagner's biggest problem is this highway, the only route to the mainland. Wagner feared if the smaller staff at the Hurricane Center couldn't produce timely warnings, the highway could jam solid, stranding people as the storm made landfall.
BILLY WAGNER: If we don't get the proper information and the Emergency Management community doesn't give a timely evacuation order, I guarantee you we're going to lose many lives. We were fortunate during Andrew. We were fortunately during Hugo. We were fortunate during Gilbert. But we may not be fortunate in the next major event that we have to respond to.
TOM BEARDEN: The responsibility of deciding just which jobs would be eliminated fell on Joe Friday, Director of the National Weather Service, which oversees operations at the Hurricane Center. Friday said he was comfortable with the decisions he had to make.
JOE FRIDAY, National Weather Service: We have done what I feel is a very responsible job of taking the cards that have been dealt us and identifying those cuts which minimize the impact on public safety; the ground rules that we all followed was to try to minimize any direct impact on the warning programs of this nation.
TOM BEARDEN: And standing behind Friday's decisions was James Baker, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the Weather Service.
JAMES BAKER, Director, NOAA: I've looked carefully into what the proposals are. I'm confident that they can, in fact, make those reductions and still not affect either public safety or warning capabilities.
TOM BEARDEN: But others at the National Weather Service decided to challenge the job cuts. Four high-ranking administrators signed a strongly-worded statement calling the decision to eliminate many of the jobs ill-advised and said it would result in increased risk of unnecessary deaths, injuries, and damage. One of the signers was Ron McPherson, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which includes the Hurricane Center. He was prepared to put his job on the line.
RON McPHERSON, National Centers for Environmental Prediction: I have made the statement that unless these reductions can be turned around, can be stopped, permanent reductions can be stopped, that I will find it necessary to leave the federal service after more than 37 years. I hope that that will not be necessary, but my conscience as a public servant simply will not permit me to be a party to the implementation of these reductions that I believe are hazardous.
TOM BEARDEN: News that top Weather Service officials were prepared to fall on their swords over the job cuts reached Capitol Hill and was of particular interest to members of the Florida delegation, like Congressman Clay Shaw, whose district extends for 90 miles along South Florida's Atlantic Coast.
REP. CLAY SHAW, (R) Florida: I think you do need to look and see, when particularly, when you have people locally that work for the Weather Service, are threatening to quit, and they're going public with their arguments. That takes a lot of courage to do that, to go against the administration when you're one of their employees, and that's what really caught my attention.
TOM BEARDEN: Congressman Shaw called an emergency hearing at the National Hurricane Center. The center is known for accurately predicting the future. But on this day the future seemed to be anybody's guess.
JOE FRIDAY: And I want to assure you, and I want to assure the public of Florida that we have no intention of abandoning the Hurricane Center in producing the best possible forecast of hurricanes.
JERRY JARRELL: I'm very much concerned about late in the season that we're going to have--I don't want to use the term but I will--we're going to have zombies out here making important, critical decisions that you don't want to live with. They have my support for restructuring the work, if there are better ways of doing it. But I don't have the ability to print any more money at this time.
REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, we have a supplemental appropriations bill--
TOM BEARDEN: The loss of the Hurricane Center jobs was getting lots of media attention in Florida, and Congressman Shaw knew what his coastal constituents wanted him to do.
REP. CLAY SHAW: If you're going to err, you want to err on the side of caution, not err on the side of a lean budget, where people might get hurt and you might not be able to really predict where these hurricanes are coming from, and where they're going to be going.
TOM BEARDEN: Shaw assured everyone at the hearing that he would return to Washington and push for emergency funding to preserve the jobs at the Hurricane Center. But Commerce Secretary Bill Daley acted first. On April 17th, Daley quieted the storm by shifting $715,000 out of a polar satellite program into the National Hurricane Center, saving those jobs, at least through 1997.
REP. CLAY SHAW: And now we do have a hurricane center in South Florida that's fully staffed.
TOM BEARDEN: But on Capitol Hill, some members were stunned by the Hurricane Center controversy. They felt that if their original orders had been followed, the Hurricane Center never would have been in jeopardy. Two House appropriators--Republican Harold Rogers and Democrat Alan Mollahan--complained to Secretary Daley that Congress specifically had instructed the National Weather Service to cut its budget by making staff reductions only "at non-critical Washington Headquarters functions" and that "at no time was there any discussion of reductions in staffing at the National Tropical Prediction Center" in Miami. And at a Capitol Hill hearing just before Memorial Day Senator Ernest Hollings wanted to make clear that the effort to balance the budget does have its limits.
SEN. ERNEST HOLLINGS, (D) South Carolina: The weather bureau obviously is giving the impression that we're more concerned over budget issues than safety. That's a serious charge.
JAMES BAKER: Well, Senator Hollings, we recognize what you say, that safety of life and protection of property has to be the number one priority for our agency and that whenever we take budget cuts, we have to make sure that we are not jeopardizing the warning services of the National Weather Service.
TOM BEARDEN: The story isn't over just yet. The Weather Service leadership is proposing more staff cutbacks still to come as part of a $4 ½ billion modernization program. That includes closing its southern regional office in Fort Worth, thereby reducing the number of mainland regional offices from four to three. That plan has Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison very concerned.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: It just seems to me that there is a way this could be worked out without jeopardizing the safety of the region that has the most to lose here--the most disruptive weather. Because if we have a disaster where communication has not been forthcoming, I don't want to look back and say, gosh, if we had been a little more creative, if we had been a little more budget-oriented, as well as innovative in the approach, we could have avoided this.
JOE FRIDAY: I understand their desire to maintain the present structure. I would like to maintain the present structure as well. I don't have the funding to do it.
TOM BEARDEN: The Southern Regional Office in Fort Worth was fully operational, initiating tornado warnings when deadly twisters recently spun through Texas. The regional managers wouldn't speculate on how those warnings might have been delayed had their office already been shut down. But Senator Hutchison isn't taking any chances. She and several other members of Congress have asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to thoroughly review the effects of shutting down the Southern regional office. That could take several months. But until it does, Hutchison wants the office kept open.