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Government Shutdown Stalls Preparedness For Hurricane Season


In this country, it's never too early to prepare for hurricane season - unless the partial government shutdown gets in the way of those preparations. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hurricane season in the Atlantic doesn't begin until June. But it's now, during the quiet off-season, that researchers say typically, a lot of work gets done to improve hurricane forecasting.

ERIC BLAKE: I can guarantee you we're not making progress right now with the government shut down.

ALLEN: Eric Blake is a hurricane specialist and union steward at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. At the National Hurricane Center, meteorologists - working without pay - are staffing only day-to-day operations, not research and development. Most of their partners at the Hurricane Research Center in Miami and the Environmental Modeling Center in Maryland are furloughed. Blake described some of the work they should be doing.

BLAKE: We're trying to get better ways to, say, incorporate reconnaissance data - airplane data or the dropsonde data.

ALLEN: Dropsondes are weather sensors, each with a small parachute, dropped by hurricane hunter aircraft into storms, gathering information on wind speed and air pressure. Blake says that information helps forecasters understand how a hurricane is forming and what it's likely to do.

BLAKE: There's also new satellite technologies, new data sources that we have to integrate into the model to continue to improve it.

ALLEN: The shutdown has put on hold a big project that's upgrading NOAA's computerized weather prediction model. The GFS, as it's called - the Global Forecast System - is one of the models used by the National Hurricane Center to forecast the intensity and tracks of developing storms. James Franklin, a hurricane researcher who worked at NOAA for 35 years, says the improved GFS was supposed to be ready in time for this year's hurricane season. Depending on how long the shutdown continues, that may not be possible.

JAMES FRANKLIN: We don't have people at the hurricane center right now who are evaluating this proposed upgrade. And we don't know how much of a delay there will be in getting this upgrade into operations.

ALLEN: In recent years, while the upgrade has been in the works, meteorologists say other global weather models have done better than the GFS in hurricane forecasts. With the shutdown, that gap may widen. The government shutdown has also had a major impact on FEMA, which works with the National Hurricane Center to train local emergency managers. The first training sessions, set for this week, have been canceled. Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says this has a direct impact on hurricane preparedness.

CRAIG FUGATE: All these classes that have been canceled, we're not going to be able to make them up this year. And that means those people are not getting the training they were trying to get to get better at what they're doing.

ALLEN: Last year demonstrated the challenges hurricanes pose for meteorologists and emergency managers. Hurricane Florence's storm surge and rainfall forced local governments to order the evacuation of more than a million people in the Carolinas and Virginia. Franklin says storms like that show why training courses are so important.

FRANKLIN: A emergency manager comes out of that course really understanding what the hurricane center can provide and what they can't provide. And it really helps them to make better decisions about who has to evacuate, who does not.

ALLEN: As they try to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season, government forecasters and emergency managers have another concern - filling vacant positions. Fugate says FEMA is chronically understaffed.

FUGATE: Now people are starting to think about - how long can I go without a paycheck before I need to start thinking about doing something else?

ALLEN: The shutdown hasn't just frozen hiring. Fugate says it's hurting FEMA's ability to retain staff that the nation will turn to when there's another disaster.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "STROMNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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