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Do We Really Need a National Weather Service?

As Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, news stations bombard our televisions with constant updates from the National Hurricane Center. 

While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm, federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America’s past that have actually outlived their usefulness. 

The National Weather Service (NWS) was founded in 1870. Originally, the NWS was not a public information agency. It was a national security agency and placed under the Department of War. The Service’s national security function has long since disappeared, but as agencies often do, however, it stuck around and managed to increase its budget. 

Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.

The NWS claims that it supports industries like aviation and shipping, but if they provide a valuable contribution to business, it stands to reason business would willingly support their services. If that is the case, the Service is just corporate welfare. If they would not, it is just a waste. 

As for hurricanes, the insurance industry has a compelling interest in understanding them. In a world without a National Weather Service, the insurance industry would probably have sponsored something very like the National Hurricane Center at one or more universities. Those replacements would also not be exploited for political purposes.

As it stands today, the public is forced to pay more than $1 billion per year for the NWS.  With the federal deficit exceeding a trillion dollars, the NWS is easily overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. It may actually be dangerous.

Relying on inaccurate government reports can endanger lives. Last year the Service failed to predict major flooding in Nashville because it miscalculated the rate at which water was releasing from dams there. The NWS continued to rely on bad information, even after forecasters knew the data were inaccurate. The flooding resulted in 22 deaths. 

Private weather services do exist, and unsurprisingly, they are better than the NWS. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the National Weather Service was twelve hours behind AccuWeather in predicting that New Orleans would be affected. Unlike the NWS, AccuWeather provides precise hour-by-hour storm predictions, one of the reasons private industry supports them.

It is not just random mistakes in crises either. Forecast Watch has found that the National Weather Service predictions of snow and rain have an error rate 20 percent higher than their private alternatives. “All private forecasting companies did much better than the National Weather Service,” their report concludes. In 2008, they found that the NWS’s temperature predictions were worse than every private-sector competitor including the Weather Channel, Intellicast, and Weather Underground. Even NWS’s online ZIP code search for weather reports is in some cases totally inaccurate, giving reports for areas hundreds of miles away.

NWS claims to spread information, but when the topic of budget cuts came up earlier this year, all they spread was fear. “There is a very heightened risk for loss of life if these cuts go through,” NWS forecasters said, “The inability for warnings to be disseminated to the public, whether due to staffing inadequacies, radar maintenance problems or weather radio transmitter difficulties, would be disastrous.”

Disastrous? The $126 million in cuts would still have left the Service with a larger budget than it had a decade ago. The massive bloat in government should not get a pass just because it’s wrapped in good-of-the-community clothing. NWS services can and are better provided by the private sector. Americans will invest in weather forecasting because if there is one thing we can be certain of, people will want to protect their property and their lives.

Iain Murray is Vice President at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of "Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You." David Bier is a Research Associate at CEI.

Iain Murray is director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.