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Snow and stress: Tracking the storm with no paycheck

The National Weather Service's Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City.
The National Weather Service's Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City. (Dan Gill/The New York Times)

The employees of the National Weather Service are no strangers to stress. They work round-the-clock, seven days a week, and know the slightest shift in their forecasts can dramatically affect air travel, school closures, and safe driving.

But now, an unpredictable storm blowing out of Washington has forced them to contend with another worry: paying their bills. The weather service was affected by the partial government shutdown, but because most of the employees are considered essential, they have been forced to work with no pay for 28 days and counting.

While the financial toll on the employees mounts, worry is also growing that the stress could begin to affect their ability to do their jobs. In New England, the concern comes just as the first winter storm is expected to hit this weekend.

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The agency continues to provide forecasts and warnings of severe weather, issuing a winter storm warning on Friday for the northern part of Massachusetts, with 8 to 16 inches of snow expected, and a winter storm watch for the lower tier of the state, including Boston, with 4 to 9 inches expected.

But the weather service’s other functions have been put on hold. The most significant upgrade in four decades to the nation’s main weather modeling system has been delayed, emergency preparedness activities with local officials have been canceled, and preventive maintenance of weather radar and observation equipment has been prohibited, according to the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the agency’s union.

“The forecasts and warnings put out might not be as good they could have been, and, every week that this shutdown goes on, the chances of that happening are higher and higher,” said Dan Sobien, the union president.

“It’s just logical,” Sobien said. “Models are not being updated, things are not being quality controlled, and some of the checks and balances that make the whole system work are not happening. Things might be falling through the cracks right now.”

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The service’s 4,200 employees are dedicated public servants, he said, committed to keeping the nation safe from severe weather. But while more than 3,600 are still working during the shutdown, they are now worrying not only about low-pressure systems and the polar vortex, but about paying mortgages, rent, day-care bills, and college loans.

“People are very stressed at home and not coming in exactly with a clear mind, which is unfortunate,” said Frank Nocera, a union steward and senior meteorologist with 18 years’ experience who works in the service’s Norton office, which provides weather updates for Boston.

“Those of us that are negatively impacted by the shutdown get very frustrated when we hear this is just an inconvenience for federal workers,” Nocera said.

The union said the delay in the planned upgrade to the service’s flagship weather modeling system was caused by the furloughing of all but one of the 50 employees at the Environmental Modeling Center in College Park, Md.

Julie Roberts, communications director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the Global Forecasting System will be upgraded when federal funding becomes available.

In the meantime, forecasters will continue to use the same system they’ve had for the last 18 months, “with no degradation to performance or skill,” Roberts said.

“NOAA’s National Weather Service has people working 24-7 during the shutdown to perform mission essential functions to protect lives and property,” she said. “Observations, forecasts, watches/warnings, and all of the infrastructure to support these operations continue to be sustained, meeting all operational readiness levels.”

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Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, said there are no indications the shutdown has affected the accuracy of forecasts to date. But since the forecasting model has not been upgraded, some equipment is not being maintained, and workers are stressed, the risk of a mistake being made is increasing, he said.

“It’s hard to know at what point this crosses a threshold for public safety,” Seitter said. “We’re not looking at catastrophical failures or the very obvious life-safety issues. But there are more subtle indications here that there is a potential for bad things to happen that shouldn’t. And that’s the concern.”

Just like TSA agents who have been forced to screen passengers and luggage without pay during the shutdown, “you’re stressing a system where even a single failure can be horrible,” Seitter said, noting that accurate forecasts are critical for safe air travel and storm preparedness in local communities.

As the shutdown, already the longest in history, drags on, union officials said they are hearing from frustrated workers who are looking for other jobs or thinking about retiring.

And agency watchers are worried the stress will make it more difficult to attract young scientific talent to the service’s 122 forecast offices, which stretch from Pago Pago, Samoa, to Caribou, Maine.

“These are jobs that people want — or at least used to want,” Seitter said.

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Nocera said it’s been challenging to maintain morale. But he said the roughly 30 employees at the Norton office recently got a boost when a number of local TV stations sent pizzas for lunch.

“Just to know we’re appreciated and people are thinking of us, that’s kind of a silver lining,” Nocera said. “We’re passionate about public service, and love protecting the people of Boston and Massachusetts from winter storms. It’s just unfortunate we’re caught in the middle of this shutdown.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.