Storm clouds at weather service

Between July 1 and Sept. 30 -- coinciding with the peak of the hurricane season -- all National Weather Service forecasters and all other employees could be forced to take four days off without pay.

That warning came down late yesterday via email from Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's interm director.

She said that the hiring freeze imposed on March 27 by the National Oceanic and Atmopsheric Administration wasn't enough to counter the pain of sequestration, and that the furloughs would be NOAA-wide.

Predicatably, her email did not receive a warm welcome from the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Richard Hirn, the NWSEO general counsel, called the proposal "quite risky." He noted that during a storm emergency (think Sandy) a weather service office becomes "like a firehouse," where everyone gets called in.

"If a guy's on furlough," Hirn said, "you can't call him in. You can't furlough the weather." Hirn said the amount of money saved -- about 0.2 percent of NOAA's budget -- would be paltry. "it is peanuts," he said.

The Mount Holly office is down two staffers, with a third due to leave June 1, just in time for the start of the hurricane season, according to staff meteorologist Tony Gigi.. 

In her email, Sullivan said that NOAA was doing all that it could to see that "critical public services are protected." She said NOAA and the union were in discussions on how best to execute a furlough plan. For example, should an office furlough two people at once? What should be done in case of weather emergency?

Congressman Chaka Fattah, the Philadelphia Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, says the furloughs are far from being a fait accompli.

The budget for the "local warnings and forecasts base," a key component of forecasting operations, is $655 million, whittled to $641.4 milloin with across-the-board cuts, according to Fattah's office.

But that's pre-sequester, his office points out, so just holding the furlough number at four would require moving some money around.

"When that plan comes over to us, then we can make adjustments to it," said Fattah. "What we need to do is get that four to zero.

"We need to focus on it, and I am focusing on it."

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