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Forecast For National Weather Service Is Cloudy, With A Chance Of Budget Cuts


The National Weather Service is in the business of forecasting the weather, but here's a forecast for the agency itself - cloudy with a chance of budget cuts. The Weather Service has struggled to get by for several years now. It has hundreds of unfilled positions, and now the Trump administration is proposing cutting the Weather Service's budget and eliminating those jobs. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Last year, according to government figures, there were 16 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each in the U.S. So the weather is something to keep an eye on. And since 1870, what's now known as the National Weather Service has been doing that. But for the past several years, it's been doing so with serious staff shortages.

DAN SOBIEN: The tsunami warning centers are understaffed. The weather forecast centers are understaffed.

NAYLOR: That's Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization which represents some 2,500 Weather Service workers. He says right now 10 percent of the jobs at the Weather Service are vacant.

SOBIEN: It's across the board. And what they're doing is filling some positions. And when they fill those positions, they leave others vacant.

NAYLOR: At the Binghamton, N.Y., office, Mark Pellerito, a meteorologist and union shop steward, says they're down five positions out of 18 total jobs. He says the office needs to be staffed 24/7, meaning long hours, a lot of overtime and a family-work balance that's out of whack.

MARK PELLERITO: As much as we love our job, which we really do - I mean, this is weather. This is something we've been passionate about since kindergarten for all of us. And we love to serve the public, to protect life and property. And yet we love our families, too (laughter). And not seeing them, it makes it pretty difficult.

NAYLOR: Overworked meteorologists can also put the public at risk. Tired people make mistakes. And Pellerito says the Weather Service is no different.

PELLERITO: Perhaps we're stretched thin, and we miss a warning. If you're the one who didn't quite get to your basement in time because of that one to two minute delay, that dramatically impacts your life.

NAYLOR: The administration wants to eliminate 355 jobs and $75 million from the Weather Service budget. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Weather Service, declined to provide a spokesperson for a taped interview. But in an email, an official said the service plans to hire 80 additional meteorologists in the coming month and is working to improve the hiring process, including expedited background checks. Still, Sobien at the Weather Service Employees union says some offices will have to curtail their operations.

SOBIEN: In a number of offices and sometimes in large cities like San Francisco and Tampa, they're just going to close the offices at nights and weekends and just have really no coverage there. Another office will look at the weather for them. It's a dangerous idea. They're risking people's lives.

NAYLOR: It's not clear what Congress will do with the proposed Trump budget, but Weather Service employees worry more cuts on top of current staff shortages will create the perfect storm at an agency that's been trusted and relied on. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "UNICORN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.