The National Weather Service failed to staff and now plans to phase out an elite team of emergency forecasters trained to help cities save lives and avoid the kind of unnecessary shutdowns that cost New York City an estimated $200 million last week, according to meteorologists.
The program embedded emergency weather experts in major storm situations, where they could brief decision makers and help explain forecast uncertainty to the public at large.
With a full time mission, however, these same forecasters—known as Emergency Response Specialists—were involved long before severe weather struck. They trained with partners, performed mock briefings, and learned the specific trigger points for shutdowns and other weather sensitivities in their region.
The ERS program was launched in 2012, based on an idea by Bill Proenza, the former director of the National Hurricane Center. Until his retirement this month, Proenza was the director of the NWS's storm-wracked southern region.
In an interview, he praised the program, including the work of an ERS team trained in urban environments and sent to New York ahead of Hurricane Sandy.
Staff shortages hobbled the program starting in 2013. Despite a lobbying push from rank-and-file forecasters, the national office failed to fill those vacancies. Last year it also declined to expand the program nationally.
As a result no ERS meteorologists were in the New York City area ahead of this month's fizzled snowstorm when officials shut down the city's transit system. The ERS team in Washington, D.C. -- trained in big city operations -- was re-assigned to regular desk duty last year.