As last weekend’s storm clouds began to gather, so did the men and women of the National Weather Service, despite the fact that it was a holiday. It’s not just holiday staffing that left the local weather bureau a little short, however. Three front-line positions at the region’s bureau in Fort Worth are unfilled. As the tornadoes formed, the local office was scrambling to cover the fast-moving crisis.
After a lengthy career with the National Weather Service, Bill Proenza recently retired as head of the Weather Service’s southern regional office. He says the weather service had to press volunteer meteorologists and others into duty Saturday afternoon, when nine tornadoes swept across North Texas and blizzards and other extreme weather hit West Texas.
Proenza says the office had the resources, but only just. Employees were willing to work long hours. Some off-duty employees came in voluntarily because the office was so short-staffed.
“This is a problem that has been plaguing the weather service,” he says. “Essentially we’re staffed to what we call a ‘fair weather’ staffing level. Whenever we have a situation developing like this, it just absolutely requires our people to come in.”
To compound the situation, Proenza says the weather service is going through the greatest amount of short-staffing. The Fort Worth office is understaffed by three positions. This could continue to have ripple effects in the aftermath of this weekend’s storms.
“We find ourselves playing catch-up, trying to fill these vacancies,” Proenza says. “But in reality, the rate of catch-up that we’re playing right now puts us further and further behind.”
The shortage has been going on since 2011, Proenza says. But not many within the service are talking about it.
“It’s certainly something that has been delegated from what we call our parent agency, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) headquarters in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “It revolves around the fact that there’s a certain amount of limited funding for positions such as our weather service meteorologists.”
Proenza says NOAA is actually fully-funded. But they have paced back any funds for staffing the National Weather Service. Human Resources is making the calls, Proenza says. Nationally, the weather service is under-staffed between 500 and 700 positions below the necessary minimum staffing level.
“This has the potential of the degrading our capabilities when it comes to delivering our most important mission,” Proenza says. “That is the mission to protect life. There is no higher calling.”
“Our nation is in a pieces of geography on Earth that has some of the most active severe weather,” Proenza says. “As we have greater concentration in what we call ‘population centers’ across the nation we are experiencing a greater need than ever before to provide enough sufficient lead time for people to be prepared to handle the short-fuse severe weather events such as tornadoes and flash flooding.”