GOP Senator sends reform warning to Weather Service

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A senior Republican Senator on Tuesday released details of a bill that would require a major overhaul of the National Weather Service, mainly by shifting most forecast operations from 122 local weather offices to six new regional weather centers located around the United States.

“This is a conversation starter,” said bill sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the third ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate and the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

“There need to be reforms at the Weather Service,” Thune told me. “We hope that the legislation triggers that discussion.”

Thune argues a regional approach would mean better forecasting – though by looking at the map of local offices, you can immediately sense how any plan to go from 122 local weather offices to six regional ones might garner opposition from members of Congress.

As one might expect, the idea of this type of consolidation wasn’t warmly received by the main union for Weather Service employees.

“It’s one of the worst ideas I’ve seen in a long time,” said Dan Sobien, the head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Using Thune’s home state as an example, Sobien told me that it would be “foolish” to put forecasters all together in regional centers, because that would eliminate the “little local nuances” in NWS forecasts.

“If the bad weather is in Chicago, the forecast center there will pay attention to that, not the weather in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Sobien said.

Thune anticipated his plan might not receive a thumbs up from the union.

“That’s probably a safe bet,” he said with a laugh.

The highlights of the Thune bill on the National Weather Service include:

+ Going from 122 weather offices and consolidating those operations in six regional weather centers

+ Requiring the Weather Service to do more to warn people about impending storms and weather conditions by adding “warning coordination meteorologists” at NWS offices

Also included is a separate plan that forces more public disclosures on contractors at the Weather Service, and its umbrella agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

A recent inspector general report raised questions about the actions of one senior official, who set himself up with a post-retirement job that paid him $43,000 more a year and included a $50,000 housing allowance.

A copy of the Thune bill can be found here.

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