The Energy 202: Trump’s hiring freeze shrunk National Weather Service staff before hurricanes hit

 In World

Ahead of what would turn out to be a potentially record-breaking hurricane season, the National Weather Service had 216 vacant positions it could not fill due to a governmentwide hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration, according to a recently released document.

Some of those Weather Service vacancies listed in the document, obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act and shared with The Washington Post, were in locations that would be hit by the major hurricanes that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

Staffing levels at the federal government’s weather bureau, responsible for tracking hurricanes and warning the public about hazardous weather, have fallen since 2010 when the agency employed more than 3,800 nonmanagerial and nonsupervisory employees. Staffing had declined so much that the Government Accountability Office wrote in May that employees were challenged in their ability “to complete key tasks.”

The Weather Service’s head count finally stabilized in 2016, with the forecasting agency starting and ending the year with about 3,400 on-the-ground workers.

But the staffing dip resumed in 2017, falling from 3,425 in December to 3,368 in August, according to data from the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a union representing meteorologists and other NWS employees.

“There’s no question that the hiring freeze had an effect,” said Dan Sobien, NWSEO president. “But really it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

He added, “The camel was already weighed down to the ground.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service’s parent agency, said the hiring freeze played a part in the recent decline in the agency’s ranks ahead of the triplet of intense storms — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“Yes, the hiring freeze was a contributing factor” for renewing that decline, NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro wrote in an email.

But NOAA said its forecasting ability was not hampered by the shrunken staff.

“As already demonstrated during Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, NOAA is prepared for the hurricane season and is operating at full tempo,” Vaccaro said. “Our forecasters at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, local Weather Service offices, and river forecast centers and elsewhere in the agency are fulfilling the agency’s mission of protecting lives and property as they issue timely and accurate forecasts.”

The Weather Service vacancies that could not be filled because of the hiring freeze, which ended for the agency in April, include two meteorology positions at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Those posts remained unfilled as of mid-August, the agency said, right before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston.

The freeze also prevented the Weather Service from hiring for two meteorology positions in Jacksonville, Fla., one meteorology position in Tampa and an electronics technician in Key West. NOAA said all those posts, each in cities hit by Hurricane Irma, have been filled.

Ahead of the storms, the Weather Service readied “preselected backup offices” to handle forecasting for offices in the path of hurricanes in case communication was severed, Vaccaro said. For example, the field office near San Antonio covered the duties of the Key West office when Irma hit. The Miami office stepped in for the San Juan office in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria struck.

The Weather Service said that 248 positions remain vacant at the agency. The empty desks are not limited to low-level employees.

The National Hurricane Center, a Weather Service division, has been led by an acting director since May. An acting career official is heading NOAA until President Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a permanent replacement. Trump has waited longer than any other president to fill that role.

The vacancies at the Weather Service were numerous enough, even before Trump was inaugurated, for the GAO to audit the agency’s hiring practices.

In May, it concluded that managers and employees “have experienced stress, fatigue, and reduced morale” because of the staff shortages. Because NOAA higher-ups make only “limited information” available on the status of hiring requests to those running Weather Service field offices, managers cannot “effectively plan and distribute workloads,” the GAO found.

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in a report that lawmakers are “very concerned with the continued number of employee vacancies” even though Congress has provided enough money to fill them.

“People were literally getting sick from the workload,” Sobien, the union president, maintained.

But if the new administration gets its way, the Weather Service’s budget will not remain as flush. The White House has proposed cutting the agency’s funding by 6 percent, which would include the loss of $62 million being used to update weather models and enable the agency to predict changing weather further out.

So far, the federal government has received positive marks from the public for its hurricane response. Seven in 10 call the overall response as “excellent” or “good,” according to a Post-ABC poll conducted Sept. 18-21.


–The Cabinet secretary with a double-digit security team will now have a nearly $25,000 secure phone booth in his office. My colleague Brady Dennis reported that the Environmental Protection Agency signed a $24,570 contract with Acoustical Solutions for a “privacy booth” for head Scott Pruitt. The booth will be completed next month.

“They had a lot of modifications,” Steve Snider, an acoustic sales consultant with the company, told Dennis about the EPA’s order. “Their main goal was they wanted essentially a secure phone booth that couldn’t be breached from a data point of view or from someone standing outside eavesdropping.”

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said it was a “secured communication area in the administrator’s office so secured calls can be received and made… Federal agencies need to have one of these so that secured communications, not subject to hacking from the outside, can be held.”

None of Pruitt’s predecessors in the agency have had a similar setup, Dennis noted.

Here’s how Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) responded to the news:

And from the nonprofit American Oversight:

More on Pruitt: Like fellow Cabinet secretary Tom Price, the EPA chief’s flying habits have fallen under scrutiny too. CBS News reports that Pruitt flew between Cincinnati and New York on an Air Force jet, passing on to taxpayers at least a $20,000 bill. “He then flew to Italy for an international summit that didn’t start until three days later, and he left that meeting a day early,” the network’s Julianna Goldman and Laura Strickler write. “It’s unclear why he was in a rush.”

Trump vs. California: The New York Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi has a front-page story today detailing exactly where a potentially legal fight between the Trump administration and California might go down:

[A] peculiar confluence of history, legal precedent and regulatory defiance has given California unique authority to write its own air pollution rules. And because 12 other states now follow California’s standards, the state finds itself in an extraordinary position to stage a regulatory mutiny of sorts — with much of the country’s car market in tow.

At stake in the dispute between officials in Sacramento, the state capital, and Washington is a measure that the Obama administration estimated would eliminate as much as six billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers more than $1 trillion at the pump over the lifetime of the cars affected.

For now, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the E.P.A., has said that he will not seek to revoke the federal waiver that allows California to set auto emissions standards… Still, the auto industry has hardly conceded defeat.

A Republican rebuke on renewable fuels: In yet another sign of a growing rift between Republican senators and the president, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) went on the Senate floor Tuesday to rip into the Trump administration for weakening the renewable fuel standard. 

Background: Begun in 2005, the RFS requires refiners to blend ethanol and other biofuels into gasoline and other transportation fuels sold in the United States. In a notice on Tuesday, the EPA outlined a number of options to cut the amount of blending required for 2018 and 2019.

Traditionally, the RFS has divided Republicans from oil-producing states, who find the requirements burdensome for companies in their states, from GOP members representing corn-growing states like Iowa, which benefit from the standards. 

On the campaign trail in Iowa and elsewhere, Trump promised to support ethanol producers. As recently as June, Trump told Iowans, “we’re saving your ethanol industries.”

On Tuesday, Grassley accused Trump of going back on that promise.

“About a month ago, the president even called me to say he still supports renewable fuels and that he will keep his word on the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Grassley said on the Senate floor. “He said I was free to tell Iowans of his ongoing support. I’ve gladly done so.”

“So you can imagine my surprise today,” he continued, “when I see that the EPA has released a proposal, out of the blue, to reduce the volume requirements for biodiesel for 2018 and 2019 under the Renewable Fuel Standard. This action today has come out of nowhere.

He added, “It’s outrageous that the EPA would change course and propose a reduction in renewable fuel volumes in this way. This seems like a bait-and-switch from the EPA’s prior proposal and from assurances from President Trump himself and Cabinet secretaries in my office.”


— President Trump, who has been criticized for not paying enough attention to Puerto Rico following Maria, said there were challenges involved in getting food, water and other supplies to the battered island because of a “very big ocean” between here and there. Philip Bump has the comments: 

“‘It’s very tough, because it’s an island,'” Trump said during a meeting with members of the House. ‘In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there. And you know, we’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and on Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico. But the difference is, this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. And it’s a big ocean; it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job.'”

Later: ‘Frankly, we’re doing — and it’s the most difficult job because it’s on the island — it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”

Bump says: “That’s true. Instead, supplies must be transported by airplane or ship instead of by truck. But that’s still not a great excuse for why the island is awaiting supplies.”

— Facts on the ground: The island remains mostly without electricity. There are food and water shortages. The faltering Guajataca Dam, which has forced evacuations, has not been inspected since 2013.

— Trump said his planned Oct. 3 visit is “the earliest I can go because of the first responders, and we don’t want to disrupt the relief efforts.”

— Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of the capital city of San Juan, told ABC News about the unbearable heat the residents are facing. “What’s out there is total devastation. Total annihilation. People literally gasping for air. I personally have taken people out and put them in ambulances because their generator has run out,” she said.

Here’s an interview the San Juan mayor did with CBS News: 

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