Last night we huddled in the dark through one of the roughest thunderstorms in years here in Southwest Florida. Copious rainfall totals were widespread, including over six inches in my neighborhood. Sitting for hours listening to the ferocity outside, I could not help but laugh out loud at the local forecast displayed on my smartphone: “Overnight, partly cloudy.” No mention of rain whatsoever. Even the office from which they supposedly generated that forecast was reporting heavy rain that hour, eventually recording almost three inches. Botching a forecast is understandable as this is a complicated science. But when a massive line of severe thunderstorms extends all the way from Tampa to Naples, it is unfathomable that the National Weather Service (NWS) did not even mention rain in their forecast, much less issue warnings for the public.
Formed in 1970, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual budget is now a staggering $5.5 billion, 18 percent of which is committed to the National Weather Service. However, private forecasting companies have seen a surge in business from weather-sensitive operations such as utilities, aviation, trucking, rail, ski areas and even other government entities such as departments of transportation, emergency management offices and school districts because the government forecasts no longer sufficiently serve the needs of the public.
In my own profession, awareness of approaching weather is of paramount importance. NWS forecasts like today’s “50 percent chance of rain” are utterly worthless to me. I need to know if, when and where it is going to rain, not CYA percentages. Out of necessity, I have become quite the weather aficionado and, truth be told, generate forecasts far more meaningful than those issued by the government. I also procure highly useful information from regional weather discussion sites and I am constantly amazed in observing intelligent, yet non-credentialed amateurs consistently outperforming the highly-paid government professionals.
As we hopefully return to a period of conservative ideology in our country, we may need to reconsider the practicality of gigantic government bureaucracies such as NOAA and NWS when many similar services could be more efficiently provided within the private sector. I understand NOAA provides a wide range of services, but $5.5 billion? Very few governmental agencies are held accountable for their performance and the embarrassing effort from our local governmental weather forecast office was a stark case in point.