Major storms are forming, and America’s meteorologists are stuck at home

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Tropical Storm Karen
Image: NOAA

As squabbles in the US capital drag on, a powerful weather pattern will scatter a phalanx of threats across the country. And the combination of hobbled government and natural disaster is increasing the risk to Americans.

Here’s exactly why Friday will be a big weather day in America:

  • Tropical Storm Karen is expected to strengthen into a hurricane while threatening landfall on the Gulf Coast. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has issued a state of emergency, and the US Corps of Engineers have closed a massive storm-surge barrier designed to protect the city of New Orleans and built after Hurricane Katrina.
  • An early season winter storm appears poised to produce more than two feet of snow across Wyoming and South Dakota, and flakes may reach as far east as Fargo. Rapid City, SD is under a blizzard warning, nearly three weeks earlier than its first snowfall last year.
  • A severe weather outbreak—featuring the possibility of strong tornadoes— is predicted from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. The threat was given an upgrade on Thursday across much of Iowa, where the Storm Prediction Center says more than a million people are at risk.
  • A forecast for Santa Ana winds may spark potentially dangerous wildfires near Los Angeles. The LA County Fire Department will be staffing additional firefighters as a precaution.

These events comprise a crowded weather map that is actually the manifestation of a single continent-scale choreography of weather: high pressure out west is helping to steer and strengthen an intense low pressure system over the upper midwest that in turn is pulling the tropical storm northward towards the coast. It’s a perfect picture of the physics of the atmosphere, working seamlessly together.

Contrast that with what’s happening on Capitol Hill.

As potential natural disasters loom, the American government is shut down because of a budget dispute. As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mission to “protect life and property,” critical civil servants such as weather forecasters must remain at work—without pay —while support staff and other “non-essential” personnel are being sent home.

Although essential personnel are still on the job (and others have been recalled in face of the impending weather disruptions), it’s impossible to think that the fragmentation of bureaucracy won’t have an impact in the context of a rapidly changing natural disaster. As one very visible example,, the government’s natural disaster preparedness portal, included a disclaimer saying it was not being maintained during the shutdown. Many other NOAA-hosted websites are also down or not being maintained, and the organic person-to-person connections that foster coordination between offices are obviously not available if employees are stuck at home. The Congressional Research Service is essentially not functioning. In some cases, agencies themselves don’t even know what they’re allowed to do.

Basically, the chains of accessing and passing along information between local, state, and federal officials that typify disaster preparation, response, and recovery are broken.

And, while weather forecasters are accustomed to putting personal distractions aside—forecasters have to be dispassionate when issuing a tornado warning for their hometown, for example —the additional pressure of lost wages will surely be on the minds of those working without pay.

To protest the shutdown, senator Barbara Mikulski invited furloughed NOAA employee Amy Fritz—who normally works to develop storm surge flooding models—to tell her story:

Another furloughed meteorologist, Brad Barrett, is a professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He spoke of the shutdown’s impact on his academic institution:

It’s frustrating, for sure. As a civilian employee of the US Navy, I am on leave without pay. I am not allowed to work. On Monday, I sent out an email to my 60 students with homework in advance for the next two weeks. Beyond the next two weeks, I told them: ‘If nothing changes, you have the syllabus; you may have to teach yourselves.’ Starting next week, my institution is considering taking drastic measures: possibly either suspending all classes until the end of the shutdown, or hold lecture classes only for freshmen. We may need to delay graduation.

From a research perspective, the impact is even more severe, according to Barrett:

From the standpoint of teaching, it’s a very significant disruption. From a research standpoint, it’s disastrous. For example, I have to pause my own research into short-term climate variability and can’t meet with the students I am advising. For others, it is worse: I have a colleague conducting a long-term study on the health of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. The oysters are going to keep growing—and she won’t be there to measure them. Much of this critical time-sensitive data will be lost.

But what about when something as obviously “mission critical” as a landfalling hurricane happens during the shutdown, as is forecasted on Friday? Barrett was more candid:

I have no doubt that the National Weather Service will carry the torch forward and issue the watches and warnings necessary to prepare for these storms. The Air Force Hurricane Hunters are flying, they’re all there. The bigger question mark in my mind is on the response end. What will the federal response to disasters look like during a government shutdown? What percentage of FEMA is considered essential? Certainly not all aspects that should be considered so. We’ve learned a lot as a country during the last 10 years from the responses to natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy. Resources and people have to come quickly in the aftermath. If there is a place where problems will arise, it’s there, not in the forecasting. Can you imagine Congress coming together and passing an emergency spending bill during the shutdown? Can a natural disaster be a shock to the system? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we’ll have to wait until debt limit is reached in the next few weeks.