Swiveling in his chair at the Weather Forecast Office in North Charleston, Jeffrey Stewart looks around the windowless room and counts eight desktop computer towers, five of which are running, three of which he needs to fix. He sits at a desk behind not two, not three, but four active computer monitors, and he talks with the sort of calm that only an IT guy can muster while being barraged by data and surrounded by the viscera of an entire office's electronic network.
"I do a little bit of everything here," Stewart says. His official job title is information technology officer, or ITO, but he fills a broad array of roles as needed: software programmer, network troubleshooter, meteorologist, geek whisperer. And, like ITOs nationwide, his job is on the chopping block in President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the National Weather Service.
One small part of the president's plan to achieve $1.1 trillion in deficit reductions over the coming decade is a $39 million cut to the NWS, from $911 million in Fiscal Year 2012 to $872 million in Fiscal Year 2013. Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, says the cuts are potentially dangerous. Sobien, who lives in Florida, predicts the North Charleston office would have to eliminate its wind profiler network, which is used for tornado watches, and cut back on research to improve hurricane intensity forecasts. He also foresees an elimination of air quality forecasts. And nearly $10 million of the nationwide savings would come from replacing the 122 forecast offices' ITO positions with only 24 regional ITOs.
"I think if the federal government can afford $39 million for the Blue Angels and $325 million for marching bands, it can afford $15 million to provide its citizens warnings of severe weather," Sobien says in a press release. "It may not be this year or next, but if these cuts go through, the nation will see another Katrina-like event, and it could have been entirely preventable."
In the president's budget, four of the six services under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (including the NWS) would see cuts in the coming year, while the office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research would get a boost of $26 million and the National Environmental Satellite Service would get an extra $10 million. On the West Coast, tsunami detection and warning programs would see a $4.6 million cut. Overall, NOAA would cut $43 million from its budget.
The North Charleston NWS office, which covers an area stretching as far south as Brunswick, Ga., is responsible for issuing forecasts, warnings, advisories, storm reports, and climate data. Anytime an announcement about severe weather interrupts a TV show or radio broadcast in the Lowcountry, that's because the local NWS office looked at its data and determined that people needed to be warned. During natural disasters, news reporters rely heavily on NWS updates for their accuracy.
At the center of the office's 21st-century infrastructure — literally near the center of the building, in a cramped little closet of a room that used to serve as a soundproof broadcasting booth — sits Stewart, who knows his job is in jeopardy. He spent the first 19 years of his career with the NWS as a meteorologist in Blacksburg, Va., before pursuing his current path as a computer specialist in North Charleston three years ago. He now manages a five-machine Linux network and a 30-machine Windows network, and he writes intranet applications for data organization needs that are specific to the North Charleston office. When a hurricane is brewing five days out in the Atlantic, he starts running clean-up scripts and rebooting servers to make sure all the equipment is in ship-shape. Stewart's workstation is unlike any other in the office; he has a detached motherboard on his desk and books on his shelf with titles like UNIX Shell Scripting and jQuery Cookbook.
"My passion is IT, so I would have to find work outside of the agency more than likely, and that's ..." he says, his voice trailing off. "Jobs aren't too plentiful right now."
Stewart's job exists in part because of the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), the data-crunching and display system that was the centerpiece of the NWS' modernization in the late 1990s. When AWIPS is on the fritz, Stewart's job is either to fix it himself or to work with the contracting company Raytheon to find a solution quickly. Currently, NWS offices nationwide are making the jump to the updated AWIPS II, and the process has had more than a few kinks. The North Charleston office will begin the upgrade in November, and Stewart estimates the project could take up to three years.
"Of all the times to be talking about eliminating ITOs," Stewart says, "this is the worst possible time." (He clarifies that he speaks in this case as a member of the NWSEO union, not as an employee.)
Several weeks ago, the North Charleston NWS team got a taste of what work would be like without Stewart in the office. He was out of town during a severe thunderstorm, and AWIPS went haywire. As a result, one of the forecasters had to spend his time coordinating with the contractors. "When I'm here, I speak the language," Stewart says. He can talk to the contractors, and the forecasters can get back to what they do best.
Jonathan Lamb, a steward at the NWS Employees Organization, says consolidating ITO positions is not going to work for the agency. "We don't have two days for an IT person to figure out what the problem is," Lamb says. "Having someone who can work in the office — there's no way someone at another office can fix things from a distance." Lamb works as a general forecaster at the North Charleston office, and he credits Stewart with several innovations that have helped him do his job more efficiently, including a few bits of code that let forecasters update the local NWS website quickly and easily during emergencies.
The job of an ITO is all about putting out little fires quickly. Big problems "start off small," Stewart says, "and we're here to try to jump on them before they get big."
Want to save Jeffrey Stewart's job? Jonathan Lamb says you can urge Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Jim DeMint, or your local congressperson to stop NOAA from cutting ITO positions at NWS offices. You can also voice your concerns to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco at (202) 482-3436 or sign an online petition to NOAA and the U.S. Department of Commerce.