Driving through Gloucester, Virginia, yesterday, I got a first-hand look at the damage from last weekend's tornado that killed three local residents. The Gloucester storm was part of a massive system that spawned 243 tornadoes in just three days, claiming 45 lives across six states. Most of the victims lived in Virginia and North Carolina. Ironically enough, I frequently travel on business through Bertie County, North Carolina, past some of the small towns where 13 people died in Saturday's deadliest storm.
Last weekend family of twisters rivals the "Super Tuesday" outbreak of 2008, a system that killed 56 people in four southern states, and 1974's legendary "Super Outbreak" which set the record for the most tornadoes in a 24-hour period. More than 300 people in the U.S. and Canada died in the 1974 outbreak, with the largest number of fatalities were recorded in Alabama (77), Kentucky (71) and Tennessee (45).
Thankfully, the number of deaths during major tornado outbreaks has declined over the past 40 years, thanks to the introduction of Doppler weather radar and the work of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Among its various responsibilities, the SPC is charged with forecasting the risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, issuing convective weather outlooks, mesocale discussions and watches for areas that may be affected. The SPC is the successor to the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, which was located in Kansas City, Missouri. The forecast center became the SPC in 1995, as part of its move to Norman.
The SPC does a remarkable job with a small staff (just 43 full-time employees) and an annual budget of less than $10 million. The center's expertise was on display last weekend, when it issued a Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) tornado watch for portions of Virginia and North Carolina, well in advance of storms. Residents with access to a NOAA weather radio, their TV or computer knew hours ahead of time about the threat for severe storms, including long-track tornadoes.
If that was the case, cynics might say, why did so many people die? There are a variety of factors, beginning (once again) with the number of individuals killed inside mobile homes. Even a relatively weak twister can mangle that type of structure, one reason that residents are warned to vacate mobile homes when a tornado warning is issued. Unfortunately, most of the people living in mobile homes don't have a storm shelter and trying to outmaneuver the tornado in their car can be even more dangerous. So, many of those in mobile homes elected to stay put, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Additionally, there's the "tune-out" factor. Living in the south and Midwest in the springtime, weather watches and warnings are a common occurrence. Some residents tend to ignore thunderstorm or tornado watches, figuring they'll pay attention when a warning is issued for their area. Never mind that their window for preparation and action is reduced from hours to minutes by that decision.
And, in an era of hundreds of cable TV channels, automated radio stations and even more on-line entertainment options, it's possible to miss a watch or warning entirely. We may never know how many of Saturday's victims missed severe weather advisories, or simply had no access to a survivable shelter during the storm.
Put another way: without the work of the SPC (and local National Weather Service offices), the death toll last week would have been far higher. Unfortunately, both the Storm Prediction Center and the NWS are facing potential budget cuts. One proposal before Congress would trim funding for the weather service by $126 million.
That may not seem like much in a $3 trillion federal budget, but it represents a significant cut for an agency with an annual budget of $800 million a year. A portion of those reductions would occur at the SPC, the National Hurricane Center and other forecasting hubs. There is also talk of "rolling closures" at local NWS offices across the country, lasting for up to 30 days at a time. Other NWS location would handle forecasts and warnings during the closure periods.
No one disputes the need for massive federal budget cuts to prevent the nation's fiscal ruin. But major cuts at places like the SPC strike us as a bad idea, one that potentially jeoardizes public safety. Think about this: the NWS budget is less than the $1 billion allocated annually to AmeriCorps and its parent organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service. Those organizations are supposed to "encourage" volunterism in America, but (as the Washington Times noted last year), that spirit has never been lacking in this country. Making matters worse, we spend an average of $10,000 a year on each "volunteer."
Here's a better idea: shut down AmeriCorps and fully fund the NWS and the SPC.
ADDENDUM: We've been waiting for Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid et. al, to claim that "mean" Republicans want people to die in tornadoes. But it's worth noting that the NWS budget has been under pressure for decades, and the Storm Prediction Center was targeted for closure by the Clinton Administration back in the mid-1990s. The center remained open largely through the efforts of former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, a Republican. That episode (and current efforts to cut the NWS) remind us that a few government programs are worth saving, particularly if you live in tornado country.