Another Casualty of the Government Shutdown: Hurricane Preparedness

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The U.S. government’s partial shutdown is in its third week, and the pinch of the protracted standoff over funding for a wall along the country’s border with Mexico is starting to be felt—not only by workers missing paychecks, but also in terms of important science that is not getting done.

About 800,000 workers have either been furloughed or, if their jobs are deemed essential to protecting lives and property, are working without pay across dozens of shuttered agencies and departments. These include several that do significant scientific work such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the parent agency of the National Weather Service. Although day-to-day forecasting operations continue at the NWS, key improvements to weather models have been put on pause. Data needed for research projects may be inaccessible; and if the shutdown continues much longer, preparedness training will be canceled for emergency managers in coastal communities looking warily ahead to the coming hurricane season after the devastating storms of recent years.

Eric Blake, a forecaster with the NWS’s National Hurricane Center in Miami spoke with Scientific American about the shutdown’s impact on the NWS and its employees (in his capacity as the National Weather Service Employees Organization union steward at the center).

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Hundreds of NWS employees are unable to attend the meeting of the American Meteorological Society this week with the shutdown—what can missing such conferences mean?

The AMS conference is the largest gathering of meteorologists that we attend, and in one respect it’s our wrap-up of the [hurricane] season: How did we do? What are the challenges? And what are we looking forward to for the next several years? This is a conference attended by hundreds, if not more, of students—it’s good to energize them and motivate them. We’re trying to recruit the next generation of people who want to work for the federal government—and not attending that kind of conference really has a negative ripple effect. People get to questioning, “Well, is this the organization that I want to work for?”

And scientific conferences in general, I think, are very energizing. Anytime I go, I usually come home with a whole list of notes like, “Oh, I didn’t think of this. I should do this differently.” It’s interaction that you can’t get anywhere else, and you don’t even know where it’s going to lead [for future research].

How is the development of weather models being impacted?

EMC, the Environmental Modeling Center—they’re the main point of contact for improving the Hurricane Center models, and really the Weather Service model in general. And that organization is basically furloughed; there’s very few staff working now. Every fiscal year they set out to improve [some] model, and they have timetables to meet. And now we’re in the third week here. Delays for a day or two—that can easily be absorbed. But the longer this goes on, the more likely it is to have negative consequences down the line. And the most immediate one is the upgrade to the GFS (Global Forecast System) model. That’s expected to be implemented—I think it’s the end of the month, the beginning of the next month. And assuming it’s still shut down, that’s not going to happen. So you’re pushing things back and back.

And this is the time of year where the most work is done for hurricanes, because it’s a time when all the operational people [or forecasters] are more available. You’re trying to put the best physics into hurricane models, trying new data sources. That type of development is basically halted now. It’s hard to do this type of development during hurricane season. Without the Environmental Modeling Center you wouldn’t have had the dramatic improvements that you’ve seen in terms of the track and intensity forecasts [for hurricanes] that we saw over the past several decades. It’s basically freezing the hurricane development work, and I don’t think anyone wants that.

How is the shutdown affecting emergency preparedness efforts prior to hurricane season?

We host, with FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency), three one-week intensive training sessions for emergency managers and decision makers from across the Gulf and east coasts of the United States. In many ways it’s “Hurricanes 101”—about Hurricane Center products, and FEMA, and test cases of hurricanes and what you would do, and learning about the hurricane tools that the emergency managers have at their disposal. It’s kind of the big course that we encourage all the managers to take to be better prepared for the hurricane season. The first course starts next week, and if the shutdown is still ongoing, that’s just not going to happen.

NWS offices have been understaffed for several years now—how might the shutdown hamper hiring plans?

The Weather Service for many years has had a reduced staff, and we can’t hire anyone new if this is ongoing. It just kind of throws another wrench into the whole, broken hiring process. This isn’t going to help fill the vacancies we have at the Hurricane Center. If you want people for hurricane season, it takes some time because they have to go [through] security checks. You want to give as much time as you can.

How is the mood among co-workers you’ve spoken with?

I think things are getting much more serious now, because of people missing their paychecks. That’s serious—and, I mean, it’s a hard time to be a federal employee when, you know, during the shutdown the president announces that, “Oh, by the way, you’re not getting paid and you’re not getting a raise.” It isn’t a high-morale time, I can guarantee you that.

What do hurricane forecasters still working during the shutdown do without support staff?

We can’t really do any of the outreach, any of the training—our main thrust in the off-season. So you’re kind of put in this weird position of, like, so you work on personal research or projects that you have—but if you need data from another NOAA agency, but it’s furloughed…, it’s a weird place to be in.

There irony is—it’s a weird irony—that the Hurricane Center is less affected in a shutdown during hurricane season. [The off-season] is a time of the year where the so-called nonessential stuff—model development, the improvements for the next hurricane season—[is happening]. If [a shutdown] happens in August, then everyone’s working [because all the work being done then is considered essential].

Employees just really want to work, and they want to be paid—and they love their jobs.

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