Forecast Calls for More Federal Spending

The only people in Huntsville, Ala., who may not know when the next tornado will strike will be the staff at the National Weather Service — in Huntsville, Ala.

That's because the Huntsville office of the National Weather Service (NWS) hasn't been functional since the late 1990s. The office halted its warning and forecasting operations in 1997 after the National Weather Service moved the Tennessee Valley Region operations to Birmingham. The move was part of a nationwide cost-cutting effort that closed about 150 offices.

But the federal government still ponies up close to half a million dollars annually to pay for office space and staff salaries.

Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., is trying to get the Huntsville office reestablished as a warning and forecasting operation. He argues that the Huntsville office should never have been part of the cutbacks.

"In an effort to downsize, the National Weather Service slated communities to close their weather office," said Grace Robinson, Cramer's spokesman. "Huntsville wasn't one of them."

Robinson said that the Modernization Transition Committee (MTC) — established under a federal statute to determine offices that were suitable for closure — did not agree to closing the Huntsville office, and the status of the Huntsville office was left in limbo when the MTC disbanded in 2000.

But a source at the National Weather Service said that in December 1999, the MTC signed off on closing the Huntsville office, provided the National Weather Service could prove that the Birmingham office — where the warning and forecasting operations moved — was providing better service to northern Alabama. The National Weather Service has met that criterion, the source said.

"In Huntsville, between 1986-1997, [the Huntsville office] had lead times for tornadoes of seven minutes," the source said. "In Birmingham, between December 1997 and February 2001, the average tornado lead time was 14 minutes," an improvement of 100 percent.

Curtis Carey, the public affairs director at the National Weather Service, said his agency will recommend to Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who makes the final determination, that the Huntsville office be closed. "Under the public law, we had to prove there is no degradation of service, " he said. "We're abiding by the law."

Waste Not, Want Not

One watchdog group believes that Cramer's push to revamp the Huntsville office, which Robinson admits would be costly, is simply a wasteful program that has long outlived its usefulness.

"It's amazing to see a member of Congress prevent the [National Weather Service] from even making the most basic cuts," said Sean Rushton, media director for Citizens Against Government Waste, an organization that tracks federal spending. "He's not acting on good governance, but parochial interests."

But Rushton — who admitted that his group believes that the entire National Weather Service should be entirely privatized — added that he understands Rep. Cramer's motivation.

"When you try to pick off any one program, you can find any individual member of Congress who thinks his constituency needs it," Rushton said.

Despite the Service's plan to shut down the Huntsville office, Cramer is fighting tooth and nail to keep the office open. Cramer's spokeswoman said that northern Alabama's weather patterns demand it.

Alabama had 13 fatalities last year from three tornadoes. In all, 14 of the 1,067 tornadoes across the nation last year were lethal, causing 40 fatalities.

"It needs its own unique forecasting operation. It's a matter of public safety," Robinson claimed. It maintains an around-the-clock liaison with the Birmingham office and emergency managers throughout northern Alabama

Robinson admits that getting the Huntsville office up to speed will be costly since "it's been mothballed since the early '90's." But Cramer feels that is necessary, nonetheless. The office should be empowered to run at full capacity, Robinson said.

Robinson said they are confident that the office will be re-activated since Cramer, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been lobbying key players, including Commerce Secretary Evans, to reach a compromise.