By: Darren Samuelsohn
October 4, 2013 04:30 PM EDT
The federal government may be mostly closed, but leaders from the White House to the Gulf Coast are presenting a brave face that they’ll still be ready for Tropical Storm Karen.
National Hurricane Center trackers never left their posts. FEMA has recalled more than 100 furloughed employees to help coordinate with state and local officials from Florida to Louisiana, plus other parts of the country affected by severe weather. President Barack Obama is even directing traffic in the first big management test of his short-handed government.
With the storm churning toward a Gulf Coast landfall starting Saturday, the administration and warring factions on Capitol Hill know there are political risks for anyone seen as bungling disaster response, even if the government is partially shut down.
“They’re willing to play games with national parks. I don’t think they’re willing to play games with natural disasters,” said former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “That’s the kind of thing that can get you unelected pretty quickly.”
For all the bravado, though, there’s ample evidence that the country’s defenses are down when it comes to disasters, natural or man-made.
Some of the country’s top earthquake experts have been home since Tuesday. Federal workers handling core disaster relief programs, including the recent Colorado flooding, are furloughed. It’s the same story for about 1,000 federal special agents, including a U.S. Postal Service official who played a role in the capture of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The budget standoff has even spooked one of the country’s top spooks.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on Wednesday. He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that about 70 percent of the civilians who work for U.S. intelligence agencies are furloughed.
“From my view, I think this, on top of sequestration, … seriously damages our ability to protect the security and safety of this nation and its citizens,” Clapper said. “This is not just a Beltway issue. This affects our global capability.”
Washington got its own scare Thursday when police shot and killed a woman on Capitol Hill after she led them on a car chase from the White House. The situation only added to the unease felt after hearing from Clapper, though federal and city authorities were quickly out in force and the incident appears to have had no terrorist ties.
“There’s some very troubling stuff on the front page of the national papers today on security matters,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told POLITICO. “A lot of people who really are pretty important to national security are not able to be at work.”
“By sheer numbers of people and mission sets, you don’t have to get too far down to start impacting the ability to perform the mission,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said during a panel discussion Thursday morning hosted by The Washington Post.
While intelligence officials are working “extra hours” as much as they can, Rogers fretted that it was still “very concerning to me that we would allow any part of our national security structure, knowing what’s coming at us every day,” to be affected.
“None of that is going away,” he said.
Federal police have drawn the short straw, too. At the Department of Homeland Security, training centers where agents get certified to use their weapons have been closed, according to its contingency plan.
The Capitol Police and Secret Service agents who responded to Thursday’s car chase — officers dubbed “essential” because they protect life or property — have been working for four days so far without pay.
But about 1,000 federal law-enforcement agents stationed in the offices of eight different department inspectors general didn’t qualify as essential and got sent home with furlough notices. That includes the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general, home to one of the armed officers on the scene at the conclusion of the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. Their contingency plan said just 19 of 1,136 employees were exempt from furloughs. It’s a similar story for IG agents at the Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Treasury departments.
“If the premise of an exempted government employee is someone who’s engaged in defending or protecting life or property, then what else in fact do they do?” said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. “They’re the first line of defense. Or the last line of defense because these incidents don’t last very long.”
Staffing shortfalls are also a problem for federal agencies that handle natural disasters — both before incidents happen and then in the recovery.
FEMA initially furloughed 86 percent of its roughly 4,300 workers, though it started recalling more than 100 furloughed workers Thursday to address severe weather nationwide, namely Karen’s formation into a tropical storm that put lives and property at risk along the Gulf Coast. The agency website still isn’t getting updates during the shutdown. It also couldn’t send anyone to testify at a House oversight hearing earlier this week on the country’s preparedness and response systems.
At the U.S. Geological Survey, the principal agency for tracking earthquakes, floods, coastal erosion, landslides and volcanoes, less than one-half of 1 percent of the department’s 8,600 employees are working, with about 200 more on-call in the event of an emergency, according to its contingency plan. Its websites continue to send out updates on major geological events, but there’s a warning at the top of the earthquake page about potential breakdowns in accuracy and timeliness.
In Colorado, where the approaching winter requires prompt action, the shutdown has hampered the federal response to the recent floods.
The Utah National Guard deployed Friday after being delayed all week in reaching its neighbor for help on roadwork because of the budget stalemate, according to local media reports. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had to authorize state funds to keep paying his state’s National Guard members during the shutdown. “We need them to stay on the job,” he said, noting that the state still hopes to recover about 75 percent of its expenses from FEMA.
Furlough notices have removed about 100 FEMA workers based in the state, prompting this angry message on Twitter from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.): “#Shutdown = harming critical #COflood recovery efforts & must end NOW. #EnoughAlready #LetHouseVote”
Federal programs for repairs of damaged infrastructure and flooded farmland in Colorado have also stopped running at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to several state and local officials.
Sean Cronin, a Longmont, Colo., water management official, said area farmers are stuck in shutdown limbo because the USDA office hadn’t finished its damage estimates. “With the shutdown, the answer is unknown,” said Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. “Farmers are now in a holding pattern and in the coming days, some will be forced to make decisions on moving forward without knowing if the repairs are reimbursable or wait and lose out on the potential for filing reservoirs.”
Back on the Gulf Coast, where memories of Katrina and other storms don’t fade, there’s deep concern about the federal government not being at full strength.
“I’m concerned about everything,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told POLITICO. “There’s a real storm, a hurricane, brewing in the Gulf. We don’t have the full force of everything we need on board for that. Now emergency workers are there. FEMA will show up. But there are lots of civilians that support emergency weather service that are furloughed.”
Mark Merritt, who served as deputy FEMA chief of staff during the Clinton administration, said there are reasons to be worried about how the shutdown affects longer-term federal responses to natural disasters. He noted the unpaid members of the National Guard and the furloughed civilian workers at the Defense and Homeland Security departments who play key roles in the immediate aftermath of major events.
“The nation is definitely prepared. They’ve kept the people in place that are going to be able to respond. But when we get into the long-term recovery issues is when this gets complicated,” said Merritt, who now is senior vice president of recovery services at Witt O’Brien’s, a disaster consulting firm headed by Clinton FEMA Director James Lee Witt.
A FEMA official said Thursday that the agency still retains about 1,000 employees in Colorado who have not been affected by the shutdown because their funds come from disaster relief accounts not tied to annual appropriations. But bigger recovery projects that require review from Washington, D.C., headquarters, including Sandy-related fixes to infrastructure and water treatment facilities, are going to face delays because of the shutdown.
Other agencies with small staffs say they can handle any trouble, including crews fighting forest fires at the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, oil spills at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and nuclear incidents at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and a former executive branch human resources manager, said he expects a strong federal response to any unfolding disaster. But he also questioned whether it could be as nimble if critical information technology and human resources staffers were still furloughed.
“As anyone in a large organization knows, you shut down a part of the organization, there’s ultimately an impact to some degree across the board,” he said.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney opened up his Thursday and Friday news conferences with an update on Tropical Storm Karen. CNN carried Thursday’s remarks live with a split screen showing the developing storm on radar.
Obama has gotten multiple briefings over the past two days and he directed the administration “to ensure that federal resources and personnel needed to support state and local preparation efforts are available and on the job” despite the government shutdown, Carney said. That included bringing back the furloughed FEMA workers to address the four affected states from the tropical storm — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi — as well as other severe weather expected in the central U.S.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott phoned FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and later said he’d gotten “his personal assurance that no federal resource would be denied in response to Tropical Storm Karen, despite the ongoing federal shutdown.”
“Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our citizens,” Scott said. “We will not let the government shutdown in Washington in any way hurt our emergency response efforts in Florida.”
Burgess Everett, Reid Epstein and Tony Romm contributed to this report.