WASHINGTON – Ten years after the “Super Outbreak” of 175 tornadoes ravaged the South and killed over 300 people, the National Weather Service is still struggling to reform itself and manage employee workloads to better prepare the nation for extreme weather events in the era of climate change.
At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing Thursday, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said many of those deaths in 2011 might have been prevented if the NWS was better able to communicate the risks in real time with local communities.
Yet despite the agency’s bipartisan support, it still faces many of the same communication and staffing issues today, according to several witnesses.
Many committee members pointed to extreme weather incidents in their states when urging the NWS to get its act together.
For Reps. Suzanna Bonamici, D-Ore., and Ami Bera, D-Calif., it was record-breaking wildfires and heat waves that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest last year.
Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, pointed to “devastating 500-year floods that seem to come almost yearly” in his district near Houston.
NWS Director Louis Uccellini explained that extreme weather events are harder to predict because there is no historical data. Hurricane Ida, which hit New York City in August, was the first time Uccellini said he had ever seen subways “flooded from rainfall [rather than] surges from the ocean.”
However, despite its bipartisan support, the NWS has had long-running staffing problems that get in the way of improving its ability to communicate effectively about weather events.
After initiating reforms in 2017 to better prepare the nation for extreme weather events, the NWS has fallen short in three out of eight aspects of those reforms, a September Government Accountability Office report said,.
Cardell Johnson, a specialist at GAO, explained that the NWS did not have an adequate system in place to listen and respond to its employees’ concerns.
John Werner, president of National Weather Service Employees Organization, added that the current workload given to NWS employees “exceeds” what the employees can do. He shared a chart that shows a 15 percent decrease in the NWS’s number of nonmanagerial employees over the past decade.
A March report by the committee also highlighted the gender and racial imbalance at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the NWS. At the end of 2020, there were 8.5 male engineers for each female engineer, and the number of African American workers at NOAA has remained nearly flat over the past four years.
“We need to look like the communities we serve,” Uccellini said, admitting that he was “not happy” with the slow pace of progress.
Focusing on solutions, Johnson pointed out that while the NWS has tried to implement sweeping reforms, many employees only hear about changes through email updates and do not buy into new initiatives.
“Successful reform is rooted in having leadership and staff continuity and communication,” he said.
Werner suggested that the NWS needed to do more outreach to schools and universities to inform students about career opportunities in meteorology.
Erik Salna, Associate Director at the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University, said not fixing the operational problems leaves people more at risk when extreme weather events occur.
“Either we reduce the risk, or risk will reduce us,” he said.