Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Officials Showcase Weather Service’s Value in Time of Austerity

New Commerce chief and senator highlight importance to safety and economy.

In her first public appearance as Commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker on Tuesday joined a home-state senator on a tour of the Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in its new building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee who was instrumental in funding the complex that assembles previously far-flung components of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, used the occasion to underline the value of weather forecasting to the nation’s safety and economic well-being while vowing to end the sequester law that risks crimping the weather service’s budget.

Meeting the press on a day when Americans are mourning the loss of 19 firefighters to a sudden wind shift at a blaze in Yarnell, Ariz., the officials examined live feeds from that fire on computer monitors. “This was a major forecast challenge,” said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, explaining that the famed “hotshot” team in Arizona was just preparing to make its requests for data to the weather service's local office when tragedy struck.

Uccellini called the new 800-person facility the weather service’s “central core -- what you read and hear about climate, weather and water begins here,” he said. In front of a technician’s desk with six separate monitors, he showed the visitors real-time blended data readings and overlays from Baltimore and Ocean City, Md. Upgraded supercomputers in Reston, Va., and Orlando, Fla. -- funded through a recent supplemental appropriation -- will augment computing power by threefold this month, and by tenfold at the end of 2014, he said.

“Our job doesn’t end with the forecast,” he added. “Now we’re stepping up our effort to provide information that’s actionable to decision makers” such as for beach authorities who determine when to ban swimming as a storm approaches. “And we still have work to do,” he said.

A key aspect to NOAA’s forecasting is partnership with the private sector -- some 300 private entities are regularly involved, said acting NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan. What is called “environmental intelligence,” she added, “has never been more important” than it is today because the “the severity of weather events coming our way is increasing. “

The need for public-private partnership has never been greater, agreed Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel. “NOAA’s satellite, radar and people are foundation of the public, private and academic partnership that comes together to build the most robust weather system in the world.”

Mikulski emphasized that “this is not science for science’s sake” but “news you can use” that helps governors, mayors and business developers make such land-use decisions and deal with drought and floods “as our friends in the Midwest are doing now.”

Mikulski called the Maryland data processing facility, along with a related satellite facility in Suitland, Md., the “epicenter for broadcasting forecasts for nation and the world.” She explained that having visited the new center during last fall’s Hurricane Sandy, “hindsight” revealed that the Europeans’ forecasting model for the storm had proved more accurate than the American counterpart. “Now, I love Europe, but I’ll be darned if they will have a better weather model,” Mikulski said, describing how she helped secure a supplemental $50 million “down payment” from Congress “for the federal checkbook” to enhance the weather service’s computers.

Keeping the budget dollars flowing in fiscal 2014 so that NOAA can “plan and modernize” will depend, Mikulski added, on a new “balanced” budget deal. “We need a bipartisan effort to cancel sequester,” the appropriations chief said. “Four Republicans in the Senate are preventing the Budget Committee from meeting in conference, and we need to free the Budget Committee to do the job.” Though there are no individual Republicans who have NOAA on a “hit list,” she said, “there is ongoing tension for an austerity-only approach. We want to balance austerity with pro-growth policies.”

Mikulski acknowledged under questioning that the Commerce Department is enduring “a tight lid on employees” in the form of a hiring freeze and caps on travel for conferences. But she praised the department for avoiding furloughs even though across-the-board cuts harm “managers’ ability to handle a crisis created by Congress.” Sequestration “is not as visible as a shutdown, slamdown or lockdown,” Mikulski said. “But we are kind of bleeding here.”

Pritzker, who is touring several Commerce facilities in the region, spoke of how essential weather predictions are to “protecting lives and property and protecting the country.” But they also help families plan vacations, she noted, and “move more goods through the supply chain of America, which is crucial to keeping our economy going.”

She praised the collaborations of NOAA, businesses and the University of Maryland in “building a weather-ready nation.” Endorsing President Obama’s recent executive branch initiative to combat climate change, Pritzker said, “We need breakthroughs in clean energy to outcompete rest of the world in energy sector. “

Asked by Government Executive whether she had received an orientation from departed acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, Pritzker said she spent “hours and hours” with Blank, calling her predecessor “terrific.”

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