National Weather Service Pays For Itself, Again

Hurricane Sandy is being called the worst storm to hit the northeast United States in most of our lifetimes.  I can’t objectively say whether that is true, but from watching the coverage of the destruction, it certainly seems plausible.

But there is one thing of which I am certain: it was the greatest forecast I’ve ever seen.

Using the best meteorological models we have, myriad observational data sets, along with their own skills and experience, the forecasters of the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) were able to forecast the path, strength, and timing of Hurricane Sandy’s rampage across the northeast with remarkable precision and lead time. In fact, the forecasts warned of potentially major impacts in the northeast U.S. five days in advance, despite the fact that it was a very anomalous event.

What’s more is that the forecasters didn’t pull any punches once Sandy became inevitable. Consider this statement from the Mt. Holly, NJ NWS office. The Meteorologist in Charge, Gary Szatkowski, was certain enough about the forecast and so concerned about the impacts that he implored people to heed the warnings and volunteered to happily endure their verbal abuse if the forecast was wrong. I encourage you to read his personal plea on slide 12 – that is some serious passion.

The forecast was right on and many preparations were made (schools and businesses closed, areas evacuated, planes, trains, and buses canceled or re-routed, among much more). Despite all these efforts, it is estimated (here and here, for example) that Sandy will have cost up to $20 billion when all is said and done. Sandy was a tragedy for many people that is still unfolding as of this writing. But from a meteorological perspective, it was a resounding success – easily one of the greatest forecasts of all time.

Which leads me to the point of this post: Ultimately, the warnings and preparation saved lives, which is the primary objective of the NWS. But how much money did it save?

Do you think that five days lead time allowed for enough preparation to have saved even 5% of the ultimate cost of the storm? Think of all the plans that were changed and people that weren’t stuck. Think of all the sand bags laid down and places that weren’t flooded as a result. Think of all the windows that didn’t break because they were boarded up. Think of all the food, gas, and other vital commodities purchased ahead of time at normal cost. Think of the crews pre-staged. Think of the ships moved out of port and the private boats secured. Think of all the things I can’t even think of. Isn’t it possible that all that preparation reduced the damage by even 5% compared to what it might have been without it?

Because I’d like to tell you that the entire budge of the NWS is less than 5% of the estimated cost of hurricane Sandy. That’s right, the entire NWS budget for fiscal year 2012 was $988 million*, for everything – every forecast, every warning of every kind, every observation, every satellite picture, every radar scan, every employee, every thing. If you can imagine that all that lead time and all those dire warnings for Hurricane Sandy saved America and Americans just 5%, then the NWS paid for itself with just that storm alone.

However, that doesn’t count the other 51 weeks and all the other locations and all the other services they provide.

Every time a commercial flight takes off and lands safely, there was a forecast for those airports. Every time you drive across a pass that was plowed, DOT crews probably received a forecast that started at the NWS that helped them do it. Every time a crew puts out a wildfire, they got forecasts from the NWS to help them do it and keep them safe. Every time your local TV weathercaster splashes a forecast on the screen, he or she likely used data and model forecasts that came from the NWS. Every tornado, blizzard, hurricane, or flood warning you see came from the NWS. Every satellite image and nearly every radar image you see comes from the NWS. Everywhere in the U.S. and at several locations overseas, there are meteorologists issuing forecasts and warnings intended to protect you and enable commerce 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Overall, extreme weather is estimated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to cost the U.S. economy $485 billion annually, or 3.4% of our GDP. Could the forecasts, warnings, and other services issued by the NWS mitigate those costs by even 1%? Because, if so, the benefit of even a 1% savings amounts to 5 times the NWS budget. All the precautions taken as a result of all the effort by the NWS for all storms year-round, must have lessened the impact of weather by a mere 1/5 of 1%!

Is the NWS perfect? No. But I think it is plain to see that it is one government agency that pays for itself – in terms of increased societal productivity, decreased loss of property, and most importantly, in terms of lives saved. I’ve said that before, but the forecasts and warnings for Hurricane Sandy make this startlingly clear.

Please remember that the next time your elected representatives consider a bill that affects the NWS budget.  Note: earlier this year, the agency tried to cut its technology experts to save money. Fortunately, that was rescinded, but its budget is expected to be on the chopping block next year, no matter who is elected president. Considering the benefit it produces, does that make any sense?

By the way, here is an incredible satellite loop of the entire life of Hurricane Sandy, collected, not coincidentally, from NWS satellites.

 

*That’s about 3 cents per day per resident.

Corrected a couple of typos on 11/7/2012.

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10 comments
Mark
Mark

It's actually cheaper than 3 cents per day per resident. The budget of $988 million divided by ~314 million residents comes out to ~$3/year for each resident. That divided by 365 days comes out to roughly a penny a day. Anyway, thanks for the excellent article.

PrivateForecaster
PrivateForecaster

This does a nice job discussing the importance of Meteorologists and illustrates how a cohesive group of scientists working together can successfully impact our lives in a big way. However, as a meteorologist that has worked for several private meteorology companies for years I don't see why NWS/NOAA/NCAR/NCEP...etc could not be privatized slowly as NASA is now in the process of doing. Government spending needs to be cut across the board and TAFs, DOT forecasts, and local weather reporting can be easily produced in the private sector. DTN, Weatherbug, Meridian, WSI, TWC, etc all produce products that are high quality and used frequently for airports, news stations, and DOTs. The National Hurricane Center however is unique, and having tailored forecasts for specific regions is very important. For this reason, the gov. should begin the privatization of such offices in order to keep gov spending down and maintain the strong quality that exists. It is a new way of thinking, but I think progressive innovation is best at this level.

Tom
Tom

Thanks for your comment. The privatization argument is one that I've heard many times, never more so than when I worked in the private sector. So, I understand where you are coming from. However, my arguments against privatization are available here: http://theweatherguru.com/2011/08/do-we-need-a-national-weather-service/ In that post you'll see that there are even private meteorologists who support the need for an NWS. I certainly wouldn't argue against the need for some tightening in all government agencies, but my entire point was that, in my opinion, the NWS is one agency that is worth what it costs.

james
james

I think their budget should be cut - the good researches are done somewhere else.

Radim Tolasz
Radim Tolasz

Tom, great description of the role of NWS. Not only NWS, but NMSs around the world. I made a brief translation to czech language and post it to information web of Czech Hydrometeorological Institute. I hope, it is OK for you (http://www.infomet.cz/index.php?id=read&idd=1352462604) Radim TOLASZ, climatologist, CHMI, Czech Republic

Tom
Tom

That is fantastic, Radim! I am certain that I have never had my work translated into another language before. I am truly honored. Regards, Tom

Whitebeard
Whitebeard

Great article! My son is also a forecaster for NWS. Just goes to show how really good these folks are. Too bad the powers that be didn't take heed and put emergency supplies, generators, etc. in place to help the folks when needed instead of reacting afterward.

Ann Ekster
Ann Ekster

I am so fortunate to have a son who is a meteorologist with the NWS. You guys and gals are the best of the best. A typical person does not know what goes into a forecast but we do. We've been to a NWS office and was shown what goes into a forecast. It is very complicated information that has to be put together like a puzzle.. Keep up the great work that you do.

JoeThePlumber
JoeThePlumber

You need to give credit to researchers in NOAA and academia too. The link between research and operations is what made this forecast so good. NWS is big part of it, but NOAA research budgets are more under-the-gun, and I argue that they are just as important to make better forecast tools.

Tom
Tom

Agreed, Joe. There is more to it than just the NWS, it's just that the NWS is the agency with which I'm most familiar. But kudos also to all the NOAA and university researchers who contribute to the advancement of meteorology every day. I am hopeful that all science budgets are considered in the light of the benefit they actually provide to our great nation.