Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
As House Republican leaders try to decide when to re-open the federal government, a hurricane is potentially brewing off of America's southern coastlines, and the scientific parts of the federal government that would normally track and report on this to American citizens potentially in harm's way, where are they?
They're … on furlough.
If a hurricane should hit any part of the American coastline while the federal government is shutdown, woe be it unto the GOP leadership that precipitated this crisis and brought the subsequent political storm down upon their heads.
At least one potential hurricane is looming right now off of America's coasts, says The Weather Channel. "Tropical Storm Karen has developed over the Yucatan Channel and the southern Gulf of Mexico, and will ultimately pose a threat to the United States," the channel said in a recent report.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency hurricane watchers and researchers, however, aren't among those monitoring the threat because…they're on furlough.
Not to be mean, but what in the world was the Republican leadership in the House thinking when it decided that it was perfectly fine to shut down the federal government because of a health care law that had already been settled by the American electorate?
Just as one of many examples that are brewing out there right now — alongside tropical cyclones gathering steam at the tail end of the hurricane season — here is the report from the NOAA page that is mostly dormant due to the federal government shutdown. Usually, NOAA researchers would do their own reporting on a developing hurricane, but they're on furlough. So the webmasters had to pull in whatever information they could on the developing storm front:
"Data from an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft indicates that the area of low pressure located over the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico has become a tropical storm and is producing winds of up to 60 mph in the extreme Southeastern Gulf of Mexico," read the NOAA special alert. "This system has a high chance…near 100 percent…of becoming a tropical cyclone during the next 5 days as it moves north-northwestward."
Tropical Storm Karen isn't the only potential storm federal scientists aren't allowed to track right now. Even as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued a state of emergency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (those still on the job) has closed a huge storm-surge barrier built to protect New Orleans, there are other big weather-related developments going unmonitored by the feds as well.
An early season winter storm may drop more than two feet of snow on Wyoming and South Dakota. For example, Rapid City, S.D., is under a blizzard warning. Meanwhile, a severe weather outbreak that could include some strong tornadoes is predicted from Oklahoma to Wisconsin, and the Storm Prediction Center says more than a million people are at risk. And, out west, Santa Ana winds could spark potentially dangerous wildfires near Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is adding additional firefighters as a precaution.
And the federal scientists who would usually be on the job to help track, predict, monitor and advise local and state officials for these sorts of weather-related developments and storms? Most of them are on furlough.
Thankfully, leadership at places like FEMA and NOAA are trying to quickly pull some of their furloughed workers back in to monitor the developing hurricane situation. But it begs the question —why did any of this ever happen in the first place? Why put Americans in harm's way in the first place because of a political grudge match, on an issue that had been settled in a national election already?
As a reminder of what's at stake, listen to these words the president of the United States wrote to a constituent wondering why a national political fight had occurred in the first place.
"We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices," the president wrote. "In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum."
The president who wrote this? Abraham Lincoln.
A version of this column appeared as" A Brewing Storm" in U.S. News & World Report. His most recent Op-Ed was "Do Facts Matter Anymore in Public Policy?" The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.