Hurricane season is never really over for the federal employees at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
When scary storms stop threatening at the end of November, the Hurricane Center goes into planning mode.
Contractors improve and update the prediction models that allow meteorologists to track storms with greater certainty. Planners reach out to colleagues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate preparedness workshops for local governments. Analysts update storm surge maps.
But this year, with the partial government shutdown preventing non-essential federal personnel from working, key planning activities simply aren’t happening. That fact is leaving some forecasters concerned about national hurricane preparedness — in 2019 and into the future.
“Operational weather and hurricane modeling is not something you can find laying in the street,” said Eric Blake, a National Hurricane Center specialist and union steward. “These people generally have PHDs, and most of them are sitting at home thinking about when they’re going to get their next paycheck and how they’re going to pay their bills instead of working on these models.”
Normally around this time of year, the National Hurricane Center teams up with FEMA to put on a series of preparedness workshops for local governments. The workshops offer local officials the chance to get more familiar with reasoning behind forecasts that could serve as key warnings in the event of a disaster.
For instance, Blake said, it could prove crucial in the event of a major storm that local officials know how storm surge is measured — in feet above ground, not above sea level.
“If (local) emergency managers don’t know the latest science, that’s bad,” said Phil Klotzbach a hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.
The government has already been forced to cancel two of the three planned workshops, and the third is in jeopardy.
Cathie Perkins, Pinellas County's emergency management director, said she had hoped to send staff to the preparedness classes, but the cancellations aren’t getting in the way of planning.
"Not at all," she said. "We will be prepared."
Perkins also noted that the forecasting arm of the National Hurricane Center is still up and running.
Even that essential service could be affected by the lapse in federal funding. Most of the government workers who update the hurricane center’s forecasting models are contractors, meaning they haven’t been able to work during the shutdown, Klotzbach said.
Forecasting progress is incremental, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with the IBM-owned Weather Underground. One year of improvements builds on the next. When one round of model updates is interrupted by a shutdown, it halts future progress as well.
“It’s very disruptive to have a one-month shutdown,” Masters said.
Blake said that even if the government were to reopen soon, hurricane forecasting models would likely not be updated in time for the season, which runs June through November.
For the purposes of 2019, using last year’s model is not a major concern for forecasters — or local planners.
In Hillsborough County, for instance, officials are confident they have access to the kind of models that will allow them to adequately prepare for a hurricane.
“What we have now is still good,” said Michael Ryan, Hillsborough County’s deputy emergency manager. “What (they’d be) working on now is enhancements.”
But the shutdown’s effects could reverberate well beyond 2019 in other ways.
Blake and his 41 colleagues at the hurricane center in Miami have worked since late December for no money. (A few members of Blake’s office are currently furloughed, the hurricane specialist said.)
The shutdown came at a time when the office was already overworked.
“During the last few seasons we’ve been understaffed,” Blake said.
Perhaps worse, the shutdown experience has shaken some hurricane forecasters’ collective faith in government work.
“A huge issue that I see in general is, who wants to work for the government?” said Masters, who left the government for the private sector in 1990. "I’m not going to want to work for a government that shuts down for a month at a time."
Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.
Correction: A few members of the National Hurricane Center staff have been on furlough. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number.