A Brewing Storm

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ROMEOVILLE, Ill (WIFR) -- Blizzards, tornadoes, and floods. You name it we see it here in the Stateline and one organization is in charge of keeping us all ahead of the storm.

"Locally we serve about ten million people in 23 counties", says Eric Lenning, a Science and Operations Officer at the National Weather Service in Chicago.

The National Weather Service does more than just forecast. Behind the scenes, it provides life-saving information when seconds count.

"When we issue a tornado warning, it's important for us to be able to convey exactly what we're expecting from that tornado", says Lenning.

Forecasters work with local community leaders and emergency coordinators, especially during times of severe weather. But those strong ties could weaken as the organization faces tough decisions due to staffing challenges and financial cuts.

"Several National Weather Service, actually numerous National Weather Service offices and entities are now experiencing serious staff shortages. As of a matter of fact an office in Alaska has had one person working 143 days straight without any time off", says Gilbert Sebenste, a Staff Meteorologist at Northern Illinois University.

A recent Washington Post article highlights a vacancy issue at several of the services branches. "The National Weather Service has not filled a lot of positions. A lot of the people have retired from the weather service over the past three to four years and because of that some offices are short four, five, even six people", says Sebenste.

A May report from the Government Accountability Office sheds light on this problem saying, "Officials we interviewed said they were at times unable to complete key tasks and were experiencing stress and fatigue from their efforts to cover for vacancies".

"During severe weather days you absolutely need more people because we're staffed for quiet weather", says Lenning.

As of July, the NWS, which employs 4,300 people, had 668 vacancies according to the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

"You can only go so long with the low resources without your product quality being seriously affected and that's what's happening right now and it's starting to get very concerning", says Sebenste.

The National Weather Service is facing a 6% budget cut for 2018 and with ongoing vacancies, it could make matters worse.

"If their ability to do their jobs is compromised because of budget cuts or low staffing, then everybody suffers and it puts everybody most importantly at great risk", says Sebenste.

Dennis Miller, the Emergency Services Disaster Agency Coordinator for DeKalb County, says budget cuts are nothing new. "In general, budget cuts affect everyone, every agency. My agency has a slim budget, which is fine, but it's a problem we will have to address", says Miller.

The biggest question that remains is how these cuts could eventually impact public safety. Sebenste says, "Unless the situation turns soon and they're able to become fully staffed and have their equipment modernized more, I don't want to even think about some of the consequences that we could be facing in the near future".