CARIBOU, Maine — A bill introduced this week that seeks to centralize the forecasting of 122 National Weather Service community offices around the country, including in Caribou and Gray, into six regional offices has drawn heated responses.
“I think this is a bad idea,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said Friday. “The weather in Maine can change rapidly, and we should have the benefit of experienced, local forecasters and not rely on some far off regional center to forecast our weather.”
The bill, S. 1573, presented to the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota, would leave one “warning coordination meteorologist” in each community office to serve as a liaison with emergency management officials for storm preparedness and response activities as well as to conduct media and public outreach. The community offices also would continue to maintain radar instrumentation.
The proposal “would essentially take forecast functions out of the Caribou and Gray forecast offices and leave one person behind to launch weather balloons,” Dan Sobien, president of the national labor union that represents NWS employees, said Friday. “It would take each office and turn it into a storefront.”
He said the National Weather Service Employees Organization strongly opposes the bill.
Efforts were unsuccessful Friday to find out how many people, including meteorologists, are employed at the NWS offices in Caribou and Gray and how they would be affected, were the bill to pass.
Meteorologists who answered the phone at the two Maine offices on Friday said they could not comment and referred calls to a public relations specialist in Maryland, who did not return calls.
Sobien said he did not have any numbers for individual offices but said “we would have to move between 1,500 and 2,000 workers from Guam all the way to Maine into six regional centers.”
If passed, the legislation would order the NWS, which has an annual budget of about $1 billion, to create a plan for establishing regional forecasting centers within a year of the bill’s enactment. It recommends these centers be co-located with a university or government lab and staffed to ensure local forecast quality would not be not downgraded.
Supporters say the bill would modernize and streamline NWS forecast operations and reduce costs. Savings over the next 10 years would be invested in super-computing capacity and research to improve forecasts.
Sobien said he was shocked at how quickly the bill seemed to be moving through the Senate.
“Thune is the chairman of the commerce committee, and this bill is on the fast track to be voted on next week by the committee,” he said. “It is pretty rare that a bill is proposed and then voted on a week later.”
In a joint statement, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King also spoke out against the bill Friday evening.
“The National Weather Service’s Caribou office is the sole NWS office for northern and Down East Maine, and it plays a vital role in forecasting weather for these areas and keeping people informed of potentially dangerous storms and other major weather patterns,” they said. “The information collected by NWS Caribou protects people, farms, recreational areas, businesses and, by extension, the region’s economy.”
Closing the Gray or Caribou office “would detrimentally affect people in our state,” they noted. “Therefore, we oppose Sen. John Thune’s bill in its current form because it would greatly undermine accurate, reliable and accessible local forecasting.”
Sobien stressed the NWS employees union would fight the proposal he said would reduce jobs, uproot hardworking employees and significantly compromise forecast quality.
He noted that, as recently as 2005, Congress rejected proposals to consolidate forecasting operations because the NWS lacked the metrics to ensure the forecasts and services would not be degraded.
“The National Weather Service has evolved over 150 years, and we should be in more cities, not less,” he said. “For instance, San Francisco, California, does not have a National Weather Service office. Hilo, Hawaii, does not have an office. We should be out there in more places for the public, and the Senate should not be closing us.”
Sobien added existing science indicates regionalizing the forecasting into six offices would result in a degradation of the accuracy and reliability of the forecasts.
“There are many instances across the U.S. where local meteorologists and first responders work together during severe weather events, and this is critical,” he said. “You won’t have that face-to-face collaboration with only six regional weather forecast offices nationally.”
He noted that people sometimes do not think about all meteorologists are involved in, such as predicting weather conditions that warn people of dangerous storms, tornadoes, flash floods and the potential for icy roads that could cause accidents, warning first responders when wind conditions make it too dangerous to fly a helicopter to pick up a patient, or helping to predict droughts, frigid temperatures or extensive rains that could damage crops.
“When you think of the economic impact that could be lost to our agricultural system alone without meteorologists, it is tremendous,” he said.
In Aroostook County, potato growers and other farmers depend on forecasts from the NWS during planting and picking season, according to Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board.
“When you can predict the weather, you can use it to your advantage on a farm or growing operation,” Hobbs said. “I don’t know how accurate it would be if you were predicting the weather from South Dakota, if one of the centers was there.”
Hobbs said NWS historical data also are useful when it comes to planning for late blight. He noted potato growers have weather and radar apps on their phones to predict thunderstorms and other incidents, so they have other resources besides the NWS, but they still rely on the forecast office.
Emergency management officials in Maine were surprised by the proposal and said they always work closely with the weather service in weather emergencies or other serious incidents.
Kathleen Rusley, public information officer for the Maine Emergency Management Office in Augusta, said she had not heard of the bill and thus could not comment beyond saying the NWS offices in Caribou and Gray were “trusted partners.”
“We rely on them to give us up to the minute weather statements whenever there is a big storm or the possibility of a significant weather event,” she said. “We always call upon them and we get every district office from MEMA in on the conference call and everyone is around the table to ask questions.”