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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.
"There's no question we would have had a different outcome if these programs were in place," Proenza told NBC News. "Why unnecessarily close the city when in reality we can make other adjustments?"
Dan Sobien, an ERS in Tampa, who was also instrumental in launching the program, said the value of these forecasters far exceeds the cost. A complete national network of 402 emergency meteorologists would cost about $50 million a year, according to a copy of the original proposal obtained by NBC News.
But Sobien, who is also the president of the NWS Employees Organization, thinks we'd see a national impact for half that much. That would equal a tenth of the economic loss New York City suffered in the recent blizzard, and a fraction of the billions lost to extreme weather every year.
"It would probably pay for itself every week," he told NBC News. "Certainly if another Sandy happened, it would pay for itself for the rest of our lives, and our kids lives, and our grandkids lives."
Chris Vaccaro, the chief spokesperson for NOAA, the National Weather Service's parent organization, said the ERS program was never intended to last more than three years. He said the "best practices and lessons" of the program would be adopted by NWS offices. In the recent blizzard, he said, having an ERS on site would have made no difference.
The NWS embedded a meteorologist in New York City and State offices of emergency management, where they functioned like an ERS.
"Lives were saved this week," he said in a statement to NBC News. "In regards to the pilot projects, they achieved what they set out to do."
Not so, according to Proenza, who joined the NWS in 1963. He said his program had no firm end date. He argued that while the NWS may send a meteorologist for an ERS-style briefing, it's not the same as having a full-time local forecaster who knows the city.
Before the decision to phase out the ERS program, NOAA seemed to agree. In 2012, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco launched a weather balloon at a ceremony to celebrate the ERS program. It gave the New Orleans team its own 38-foot trailer, kitted out with the latest weather technology.
In a series of press releases NOAA touted emergency weather experts as a way to help leaders make "fast, smart decisions to save lives and livelihoods."
"In the wake of one of the most destructive weather years on record, this pilot project is an important step to increase weather-readiness in 2012 and in the future," Jack Hayes, who was the director of the National Weather Service, said in one of the press releases.
The NOAA website still touts the work of ERS personnel ahead of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Mardi Gras, the NCAA Final Four, and the 2013 National Boy Scout Jamboree in Glen Jean, West Virginia.
In that case, the Jamboree included an outdoor concert in late July, when the area is often scoured by severe heat, flash floods, and lightning strikes.
To prepare, four ERS meteorologists joined a task force more than a year in advance. The day of the concert, they convinced the organizer to push the start time up to 4 p.m., instead of 7 p.m. The area was clear at 6:45 p.m. when lightning struck the camp, endangering $200,000 in equipment and tens of thousands of scouts.
In Proenza's vision, each of the NWS's 122 offices would have three specialists: one to support emergency responders, one to support transportation and energy officials, and one to tailor the local response to climate change. Instead, the NWS will maintain only about 10 non-ERS forecasters in each office. That's not enough to handle severe weather events, according to the union.
"We're moving in the wrong direction," said Proenza. "Our staffing has always been minimal and outside of fair weather we always need more people."
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The program's end comes amid broader shortages at America's first line of defense against severe weather. In the last four years, NWS staff has shrunk from 3,877 to 3,495, a loss of about 10 percent of the workforce, according to numbers tracked by the NWS Employees Organization. About 200 of these positions are considered "emergency essential."
Those employees are required to report to work during extreme weather. There are also dozens of openings for flood experts and interns, sparking concern that the NWS won't be able to train new hires fast enough to maintain even its current size.
Vaccaro, the spokesperson for NOAA, said the organization is working to fill these positions soon.
There is only so much they can do with a stagnant budget, says Kathyrn Miles, the author of Superstorm, the first moment-by-moment recreation of Sandy.
"What results from all of this is hours of overtime, missed sick leave, and offices with crucial staffing shortages," she said in an email. "Meteorologists at the NWS struggle to keep up with daily forecasting during calm weather periods: during crises like Hurricane Sandy, those vacancies can mean the difference between life and death."