Violent Midwestern weather spotlights NWS—but staffing woes loom at agency

WICHITA, Kan.—Extreme weather slammed the nation’s heartland this month—with heavy rains, floods and a rash of deadly tornadoes thrashing several states, and staying on top of this grave situation in the heartland are the few thousand dedicated federal employees of the National Weather Service.

Official warnings and evacuations have succeeded, for the most part, in protecting the public. But there has been also death, injury and property destruction. By mid-month, the hardest hit states had included Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as Kansas and Texas. Iowa and Illinois also saw damaging weather—and, for Colorado, unusually robust spring snowstorms.

The NWS is a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. It’s the linchpin of protecting people and property—especially crops—from damaging weather events. Yet it has suffered budget constraints and lowered staffing in recent years.

On this crucial workforce situation at NWS, the head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization—the NWS employees’ union—says the staffing forecast, just like Midwestern weather, is not for clear skies any time soon.

“There are supposed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 employees at the Weather Service,” Dan Sobien, president of NWSEO, tells FederalSoup. “But instead there are a huge number of vacancies—and that means we’re really closer to 3,500 employees right now.”

Sobien lauds the capability of the agency’s workforce, and the agency’s improved technology in recent decades—but he also tells us that the failure to fully staff the agency remains a real problem, with real implications. Sobien also points to the government shutdown last winter, and other factors, as continuing hindrances to sorting out the hiring issue.  

For now, in the Midwest, the forecast is for more rain and possibly more tornadoes in the coming days—and, at the NWS, for continuing problems making progress toward full staffing at the agency.

For the full Dan Sobien interview, see the upcoming, May 27 issue of FEND.

Reader comments

Fri, May 24, 2019 Carl Topeka

The federal government was able to staff up adequately in the past. Agriculture and Defense and several other agencies built tremendous assets that are still important-roads and airports and dams and everything else- in the farm and mountain states, over just a couple of decades. The federal part of our economy has done great things, and still is. And if there are these staff problems, if the public and Congress get involved, they can be fixed. But that may be a big IF these days. Seems to be a lot of trouble in Washington now.

Thu, May 23, 2019 SAM USA

Every federal agency and department has severe staffing shortages. No intelligent Qualified people want to work for the government today because of all of the abuse by Trump and by Congress. The VA Hospital System alone has over 49 THOUSAND unfilled positions for qualified medical personnel. Trump cannot even find Chefs and Cooks to work at the White House, which is why he serves all of his guests McDonald burgers.

Thu, May 23, 2019 Guy Kansas

I sure hope this staffing problem gets fixed!

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