As I write this, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham are reeling from earlier blows today. Huntsville is hunkered down. The DC area is scrambling to pick itself back up, taking advantage of a breather between storms. Ithaca is bracing for the worst. In fact, the entire eastern third of the country looks to be lit up – the sequel to yesterday’s storms that scoured the south-central United States. My younger colleagues – they’re professionals! they know this stuff! – can’t remember the like.
The evening is young.
Are you in my line of work? Maybe you’re holding down one of the night shifts at a National Weather Service offices, putting out some of those hundreds of advisories that are going out…watches and warnings differing only in location, not in tone, from the hundreds that went out yesterday in and around Texas. Perhaps you’re an emergency manager using that information alert hospitals, police, and firemen, to protect life (too late to protect property) in your city or town. Maybe you’re a television weathercaster, putting out the word. You have this sense of déjà vu. You went through this last week. And the week before that. What a spring!
Or maybe, if you’re a researcher, or in policy and planning, or a social worker, or a school teacher…you’re glued to that television, checking in with friends and family, using the latest information technology to exercise your social networks and check in, and pass on warnings and words of encouragement the old-fashioned way, from (virtual) neighbor to (virtual) neighbor. We love each other!
Humanity showing its best side.
Meanwhile, back at that official National Weather Service? Some 5000 dedicated staff are busily at their task of interpreting weather guidance, satellite and radar images, and cranking out watches and warnings. Who are these men and women? Just a few of those much-derided and maligned federal workers who are viewed by many in the rest of the Nation as non-essential – many of whom came within hours of being barred from work by a government shutdown just a few weeks ago. Their professionalism and scientific education? Never better. Their work ethic and sense of mission? Second to none.
Again, humanity showing its best side.
But the technology back at that official National Weather Service? A different story. It’s seen its day. Much of it should be replaced. Instead it’s limping along. 30+ year-old radars slew creakily and unreliably about on failing pedestals, using 1970’s vintage technology. The satellite in orbit now won’t be there in a few years, and maybe won’t be replaced for a while either, because of a shortfall in the budget for NOAA’s polar-orbiting weather satellites. Starting at the end of NOAA’s NPP satellite mission, sometime in 2016-2017, expect a gap of six- to twelve-months or longer.
The cost of those new replacement radars we’re loathe to buy? Maybe $1.5B over ten years. The reason for that gap in satellite coverage we can expect in a few years? An unwillingness to put maybe $800M additional into NOAA’s budget this year. That’s $3 from every American this year for the satellites (less than one penny a day) and ½ cent/day for the radars over the ten years.
The label in government circles for such programs is “discretionary.” That contrasts them with entitlements – the funds going to social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other programs. These latter programs can’t be cut. But the discretionary programs? Those funds for child education, and for supporting the Federal Aviation Administration, and our National Parks, and all those other programs that help make America America? They’re up for grabs.
And that failure, that interruption, that hiccup, is most decidedly NOT humanity showing its best side. Because part of humanity – indeed, part of love – is commitment to each other’s well-being, a determination to prevent disruption of vital public services, a desire to make the world safer and future brighter for those in our communities. Somewhere the system has broken down. Don’t let Congress off the hook. But don’t point the finger at them either. You and I elected them. We made them what they are.
So come 2016-2017, when the tornadoes, and the hurricanes, and the winter storms for that period hit with maybe less of a heads-up than we enjoyed tonight, remember – we all signed on for that adventure in 2011.