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4 ways you didn’t know the government shutdown is affecting Florida

Although many people close to the problem in the Tampa Bay area say the shutdown does not yet pose an existential crisis for their business, it’s only a matter of time before the situation becomes dire.
A Florida panther is treed by the state Wildlife and Conservation Commission biologists' capture team in January 2009. Much of what scientists know about the elusive panther, Florida's state animal, comes from chasing them down with hounds and attaching radio collars to track their movements.
Published Jan. 9
Updated Jan. 9

At over 18 days and counting, the standoff over President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has already resulted in the second-longest government shutdown in American history. Although essential services like entitlements remain available, hundreds of thousands of government workers are furloughed or working without pay, skeleton crews are running several major federal agencies — and there’s no end in sight.

The federal government bureaucracy touches almost everything, from veteran homelessness to academic research. Many people close to the problem in the Tampa Bay area say the shutdown does not yet pose an existential crisis for their business, but it’s only a matter of time before the situation could become dire. Here are four surprising ways the shutdown is affecting the state.

1. The National Weather Service has lost staff.

The federal agency charged with monitoring and forecasting weather patterns is still doing just that — and doing it quite well, says Tampa meteorologist Daniel Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Read more: Donald Trump has shut down the government over immigration. Meanwhile, E-Verify is down.

Essential forecasters are able to work during the shutdown, albeit without pay, Sobien said. But forecasts rely on complex prediction models. Many employees charged with maintaining and tweaking the models have, like Sobien, been furloughed until the shutdown ends, Sobien said. As a result, forecasters can’t access data that’s as finely tuned as it might otherwise be.

Perhaps more alarming is a program they may have to skip entirely this year, Sobien said. Every year, the National Weather Service teams up with Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer governments of hurricane-prone areas like the Tampa Bay region a hurricane preparedness course. But without the funding to pay for the weeklong course, Sobien said, the government may have to cancel it.

“It seems to me that it would violate appropriations law if they said, ‘Yeah let’s do it,’” Sobien said.

A call to a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center went unreturned because that employee has also been furloughed.

2. Domestic violence shelters dependent on federal funds could run out of money.

Many local nonprofits rely on at least some degree of federal funding, said Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, an organization that provides counseling and temporary housing to victims of domestic violence. The Spring, for example, gets money both directly from the federal government through the Victims of Crime Act and indirectly through state and local governments, Murphy said.

As far as social services nonprofits go, The Spring is among the more fortunate: it has enough funding to withstand several months of a partial shutdown, Murphy said. Still, Murphy said that her group has talked about contingency plans that would let them provide full services should they eventually run short on cash.

Read more: Florida reacts to Trump’s prime time speech: ‘Stop your temper tantrum,’ ‘You have to control your borders’

The federal government shutdown could be “catastrophic” to shelters in rural and otherwise underserved communities, said Scott Howell, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s vice president of internal and external affairs. There were 162 domestic violence murders in Florida in 2017 alone, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s uniform crime report. “If some of these shelters begin to shut down or they’re not operating at the level that they normally would, what happens there?” Howell said.

3. Academic research has been disrupted.

When a university professor wins a research grant from the federal government, it often comes with the promise of multiple years of funding. So for professors who are working on projects using grants they’ve already won, it’s business as usual, said Rebecca Puig, the University of South Florida’s senior associate vice president of research and innovation.

“I really do not hold any concern,” Puig said.

But some USF-St. Petersburg professors do. Biological science assistant professor Heather Judkins is working on several different academic papers, including some with researchers employed by the federal government. She can’t submit the papers to academic journals, she said, because her government colleagues are legally forbidden to work on them during the partial shutdown.

Judkins said she also knows students who are suffering from the shutdown. One of the undergrads Judkins advises needs to complete an internship with the United States Geological Survey in order to complete a graduation requirement, the professor said. As long as the government is shut down, the student can’t.

If the government stays shut down through the fall, grant money for new projects would freeze up, and research would become much more difficult to pursue.

“It’s fine for the moment,” Judkins said of her research. “But if it goes on longer, that’s when we begin to have a problem.”

4. It’s open season at Florida’s national parks, advocates worry.

The U.S. National Park Service has slashed staff by more than 80 percent because of the shutdown. The vast majority remain open, but experts worry about the lack of oversight of some of Florida’s most precious natural ecosystems. In Florida’s one-of-a-kind Everglades National Park, for example, poachers or other bad actors have a better chance of going undetected, said Outside magazine editor Wes Siler.

Trash is going uncollected in many national parks. That could be especially harmful in the Everglades, Siler said. With each passing day, the editor said, the park’s animals could be learning that overfilled trash cans are a reliable food source. When the parks reopen, that could lead to rare but dangerous encounters between humans and Florida panthers — or even more likely, bears.

The staffing shortage could have economic consequences as well, said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of the environmental group Florida Conservation Voters. Environmental tourism is an industry worth well over a billion dollars in Florida — similar in size to Disney’s amusement parks, Webber said, citing 2006 numbers. If the shutdown drags on much longer, Florida’s worldwide reputation for natural beauty could be tarnished.

“I can’t imagine if the CEO of Disney allowed trash to pile up in front of Cinderella’s castle at Magic Kingdom,” Webber said.


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