U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said that proposed cuts to the national weather forecasting operation, which includes a fleet of satellites floating high above earth, could hinder weather forecasting, putting lives in danger and making it even harder for Buffalo’s meteorologists to forecast and warn communities about upcoming severe weather, such as last month’s tornados in Western New York. Following reports of a delayed tornado warnings to communities in Western New York, Schumer also called on the National Weather Service to investigate the reason for the notification delay. Schumer also revealed that the House of Representatives has proposed cutting $369 million in life-saving federal funding for the construction and maintenance of next-generation weather satellites that are used by experts to better forecast weather and predict tornados and other types of extreme storms, which can change in destination and strength within hours. Schumer announced his commitment to protecting this vital funding.
“In the era of rare tornado sightings in unforeseen areas, super storms, and snow events like the October Surprise and SnoVember, accurate weather forecasts are not a luxury – they are a necessity. The information we gather on weather from high above the earth translates into safety on the ground. We were lucky that no one in Hamburg, Orchard Park, or Holland was hurt by these destructive tornadoes, but they certainly could have been. And it is crucial that residents have all the information necessary to keep themselves safe, and that they get that information in a timely fashion,” said Senator Schumer. “For those reasons, I am calling on Congress to protect funding for our weather satellite system, and I am calling on the National Weather Service to investigate why warnings about last month’s tornado were reportedly received after the tornadoes touched down in Hamburg. Cuts to the polar orbiting satellite programs would severely hinder officials’ ability to warn the public in the future. Weather anomalies cost municipalities and homeowners millions in repair and recovery costs, which is why Congress must continue to support NOAA’s mission to keep citizens safe. These tornadoes are the latest example of how crucial and life-saving these satellites are, and that’s why I am launching this push to make sure our weather system remains adequately funded.”
Recent extreme weather in Western New York brought three confirmed tornados through the region last month, the largest of which cut a 700 foot wide path 5 miles long and had winds reaching 105 mph. As many as 23,000 people lost power and 100 National Guard, as well as 100 Erie County highway and park personnel worked to clear debris and fallen trees from roadways and residents’ homes. It is estimated that total damages from the storms will cost up to $3 million. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
Polar-orbiting satellites provide 85 percent of the data used to forecast the weather and are therefore extremely necessary because they are a vital component of Americans’ personal, property, and economic security. The data NOAA’s geostationary and polar orbiting satellites provide data that allows the National Weather Service to make accurate forecasts, which emergency managers use to make timely decisions to protect lives and property. Furthermore, one-third of U.S. GDP is affected by climate and weather. For instance, climate and weather patterns affect air travelers trying to get home safely and on time, farmers trying to protect livestock and crops, and cities relying on energy from wind turbines and solar panels. An independent expert review panel and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called for NOAA to address gaps in weather and climate data coverage. The expert review panel of weather, space and aerospace industry experts found that unless we act quickly to build new satellites, the U.S. faces the likelihood of a “catastrophic” reduction in weather and climate data. Specifically, NOAA has warned that the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime ended in 2016, and the scheduled launch date of its replacement is not until later this year. As a result, if the satellite should fail, the U.S. would be reliant on just one polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have long been in service. NOAA and international forecasting agencies have warned that such a data gap could significantly erode the agency’s ability to provide advanced notice of significant weather events. Cuts to the PFO program could lead to a gap in satellite coverage, which could have disastrous consequences for weather forecasting across the country. Without accurate long-term forecasts, communities would have much less time to prepare for potential deadly storms. Schumer noted that the Senate version of the appropriations bill proposed $419 million for PFO while the House bill only provided a smaller $50 million for the polar PFO. Schumer said that the House proposal was not adequate enough to address new and increasingly powerful storms. Schumer urged his colleagues to reject these cuts, and vowed to protect funding for the PFO program and urged his colleagues to do the same.
“Today’s advanced polar weather satellites help us see weather threats several days out, giving us time to protect lives and property and minimize disruption to the economy and people’s lives. We can’t afford a gap in these vital observations any more than we can tolerate power outages, water shortages, or interruptions of any other critical infrastructure,” said Roger Wakimoto, President of the American Meteorological Society.
Schumer also noted that, according to the Buffalo News, a tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service at 12:36 p.m. on July 19, but a tornado touched down in Hamburg at 12:30 p.m., six minutes before residents were warned. Schumer’s office was contacted by a number of residents, including the Furgala Family, who did not receive any warning until after the tornado had hit. Schumer said that the fact that no one was injured during the storm was pure luck. He called on the National Weather Service to investigate what may have gone wrong, and what can be done differently in the future to increase tornado warning times. Schumer said that the local Buffalo office of the National Weather Service took many proactive measures prior to the storm to prepare local officials, and he commended the office for communicating with residents via social media before and during the storm.
Schumer was joined by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Dan Neaverth, Hamburg Town Councilmember Tom Best, Jr., and the Furgala Family of Hamburg, whose property was damaged in last month’s tornado.