In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, it’s become apparent that a large number of vacancies in both the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is hampering response efforts to the recent violent windstorm.
The National Hurricane Center has not had a director since May. There doesn’t seem to be any great urgency to find a replacement either, the National Weather Service only posted the position on USA Jobs, the federal job board, in July.
In addition to the Director, the NHC is looking for a secretary, a Branch Chief for the Hurricane Specialist Unit, and Forecaster, Surface Analyst Forecaster, and Surface Analyst Intern at the Tropical Analysis & Forecast Branch.
Alarmingly, the White House has not nominated an administrator to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency runs the Weather Service, which studies coastal science research and provides expertise on hurricanes and their effects.
This, and hundreds of other key positions, are being filled by government officials as the agency awaits confirmation or, in a worst-case scenario, nomination by the White House.
Brock Long, the new director of FEMA, only took office in June after being confirmed by the Senate. The White House has nominated two deputy directors for FEMA, but they have not yet been confirmed.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has been without a leader since John Kelly left the post to become White House chief of staff a month ago.
On top of that, chronic shortages at the Weather Service have been ongoing for several years. In May, an audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that vacancies at a large portion of the agency’s 122 local weather forecast offices caused staff to be “unable to complete key tasks.”
The Government Accountability Office also found that staff “experienced stress, fatigue, and reduced morale resulting from their efforts to cover for vacancies.” Operational unit managers were tasked with performing additional tasks, leaving them unable to complete other important tasks, including providing severe weather information support to local and state emergency managers.
In July, the Senate Appropriate Committee criticized the Weather Service, saying they were very concerned with the high number of vacancies despite the fact Congress provided enough funding to fill the positions.
The vacancies were brought to the forefront during the assessment of Hurricane Matthew, which caused severe flooding in North and South Carolina in October 2016.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that many local offices at the Weather Service were understaffed during the storm and had to depend on state and municipal forecasters more than usual to communicate with the public.
“National Hurricane Center Staff,” National Hurricane Center, last accessed August 28, 2017.
“National Weather Service Report to Congressional Requesters,” Government Accountability Office, last accessed August 28, 2017.