Government forecasters who avoided being furloughed are on the lookout for hurricanes. But they're doing it without the help of meteorologists who spend their days improving computer models to account for storm surge, tidal influences and other stormy behavior.
These behind-the-scenes specialists weren't deemed essential to the mission of tracking hurricanes, but one of them said that they act as "coaches" to the forecasters when storms begin to boil offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. More than 6,000 employees with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are off the job during the government shutdown. That's a little more than half of NOAA's workforce.
Amy Fritz is one of them. She's a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who builds SLOSH -- sea, lake, and overland surge from hurricanes -- models to predict how high the ocean will bulge from a storm's pressure, size and speed. As an example, Superstorm Sandy pushed 15 feet of water onto some areas of the shoreline 11 months ago.
"I can't go to work," Fritz said during a press conference yesterday organized by several Democratic senators. "Right now, we're making critical improvements to those models, and we want to get back to work."
The shutdown came with two months left in the hurricane season, although now it's as if storms have also been hit by furloughs. Early predictions of an active hurricane season have fizzled, with some experts saying they've never been more wrong.
So far, there have been 10 named storms and just two hurricanes. None of them have struck land, revealing the difficulty in predicting seasonal storminess. Forecasters around the nation believed that conditions were ripe for twice as many hurricanes as the average, or six.
"This is a big bust for us," said William Gray of Colorado State University, who has been forecasting hurricane seasons for decades. He never remembers being this wrong, though one forecast in the 1990s came close.
This is a recording ...
The 10th storm of the season appears to be unwinding now. Tropical Storm Jerry is churning in place about 1,200 miles east of Bermuda. Forecasters with NOAA's depleted National Hurricane Center said yesterday that Jerry will enter an area of cooler water and differing wind speeds before finally "succumbing to the hostile environment."
If you're looking for additional information, you might not find it.
"I am currently out of the office and furloughed due to the shutdown of U.S. government operations," Dennis Feltgen, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist who normally speaks with the press, said in an automated email response. "I will be unable to respond to e-mails and phone calls until funding has been appropriated and the shutdown ends."
Another meteorologist said he was instructed not to talk about the shutdown because it didn't fit within the narrow parameters of the agency's slimmed-down duties.
"I am not able to do any interviews, since those activities are not deemed 'mission critical' or for the 'protection of life and property,'" he said. "At least that is the guidance we have been given."
Many of NOAA's Web pages are inaccessible, but the agency continues to run climate and hurricane models while making the data available online, said Jeff Masters, founder of the website Weather Underground. Satellite imagery and observations like air and water temperature from airports and buoys are also available.
"The main sorts of operational and research tools we use for hurricane forecasting are still functioning, and I haven't been able to detect any problems with that," Masters said yesterday.
He noted that Air Force storm hunters had flown through a tropical disturbance yesterday as it was lashing Cuba with rain, and he said that NOAA storm hunters are poised to take their own flight today.
Masters predicts that the storm has a 30 percent chance of growing into Tropical Storm Karen by Saturday, coming ashore between Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle. A better bet is that it won't, while still soaking the area with up to 6 inches of rain.
A 'sentry' off her post
Even as hurricane forecasting tools are available, a much wider collection of government research on things like climate change has disappeared. Masters tried to revisit a NASA screen showing the change in deaths worldwide from air pollution, but couldn't find it.
"You can't get scientific observation," he said. "You can get information for making operational forecasts and warning information. But if you want to do research, then you're kind of hamstrung."
Gray, the veteran seasonal forecaster and prominent skeptic of climate change, said he has shifted away from researching what he says is an overblown focus on carbon dioxide and back to figuring out what went wrong with his hurricane prediction.
But he's run into trouble. He was hoping to access NOAA's summary of September data on global temperatures, pressure, wind and other factors that influence hurricanes. The data, which usually become available soon after the end of the month, aren't available.
"It is interfering with our analysis of this hurricane season," Gray said. "I know others are affected by this, too."
He called it a "temporary setback."
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) described the temporary furloughs as a "layoff." She blamed House Republicans for keeping Fritz, the National Weather Service meteorologist, away from the task of improving tools to predict future hurricanes.
"She should be standing sentry right now at her computer models, making them better, making them more efficient, so we know what's coming our way so we won't be swept away," Mikulski said. "She feels swept away by the very act of her own government."
Afterward, Fritz was asked what she would be doing if she were at work.
"I would be working to modify lines of code," she answered.
Instead, she said, "I go home."