As a line of thunderstorms approaches the DC region, the headlines and graphics on the Washington Post website focus on the oncoming weather, and report that the Office of Personnel Management has allowed federal employees in the area to take unscheduled leave or work from home. Ten or twenty years ago, such attention to the weather, matched by institutional action, was unheard of.
Back in that day, this was true even for winter storms, which have an inherently longer forecast horizon. With each new administration, incoming OPM directors would boast that unlike their predecessors, they would be stingy with leave for federal employees, and in any case wouldn’t take such actions simply based on an uncertain forecast. They’d hold off until storm conditions actually prevailed across the area.
Today, government officials at every level have learned not to fall into that trap. Two trends have dictated the change. The first is that Washington, DC, like other major cities, is zero-margin. Traffic is bad and an aging Metro infrastructure has proven fragile even under fair skies. Both rapidly deteriorate in even the slightest adverse weather. Electrical power is frequently an early casualty in storms. The power outages mark the progress of every event; it doesn’t take much to cut off power to tens of thousands of homes. There’s little margin at the household level either. In most families, both parents work, leaving no one instantly available to take over daytime responsibility for the children from the schools if and when they close.
The second trend is that weather forecasts have improved. We now reliably see storms days in advance, even in the summertime. There’s been talk of this line of thunderstorms and its possible implications for the East coast for at least 48 hours.
The real world is not a controlled experiment. We aren’t yet fully able to estimate how many lives are being saved as a result of today’s forecasts and warnings, the more aggressive response by emergency managers across the Midwest and East, and actions by the general public. We won’t be able to give a figure on any corresponding reduction in property loss or business disruption from this individual storm. But here’s a comparison for you. In the United States, each of us pays about a penny a day for our government weather services. We pay a comparable additional amount for private-sector weather services… to the broadcast meteorologists on radio and television and the providers of weather information on our smartphones, etc. Over a year that amounts to 3-7$ a person. The savings from improved forecasts and response to today’s weather alone may well be comparable to that figure. But that’s just today. In recent weeks we received comparable benefits from the tornado watches and warnings; from the notice of this spring season’s flooding across the nation’s midsection; from the monitoring and forecasts of Tropical Storm Andrea; from weather support to firefighters in Colorado. And more.
What a bargain.
Weather-ready nation? Maybe not yet, but getting there.