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Harvey approaches during leadership vacuum in some crucial agencies

Hurricane Harvey approaches during a leadership vacuum in some of the agencies tasked with planning and response.

The National Hurricane Center, for example, has been led by an acting director since the permanent one left in May, and the National Weather Service posted the position on the federal job board, USAJobs, only in July.

The White House has not nominated an administrator to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service’s parent agency and the government’s nerve center for coastal science research and expertise in hurricanes and their effects.

That job is being filled by an acting career official, along with hundreds of other positions across the government that are awaiting confirmation or nomination by the White House.

The new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, took office in June after the Senate confirmed him. The White House has nominated two deputy directors for the agency, but they have not been confirmed.

And the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency, has been without a permanent leader since John Kelly left the post to become White House chief of staff.

Adding to the leadership gap is a chronic staff shortage at the Weather Service. The vacancies have been ongoing for several years, making the agency a target of criticism by the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union representing Weather Service employees.

The Government Accountability Office, in an audit in May, found that vacancies at many of the agency’s 122 local weather forecast offices left the staff “at times unable to complete key tasks.”

The GAO also found that the staff “experienced stress, fatigue and reduced morale resulting from their efforts to cover for vacancies.” And last month the Senate Appropriations Committee criticized the Weather Service in a report accompanying funding for the Commerce Department for next fiscal year, saying the lawmakers are “very concerned with the continued number of employee vacancies,” even though Congress has provided adequate funding to fill them.

The committee directed NOAA to present a separate accounting of all filled and open positions and the length of time they have gone unfilled. It is unclear whether the Weather Service’s Texas operations are among those that are understaffed.

The staffing shortage came up in the assessment of Hurricane Matthew, which caused severe inland flooding in North and South Carolina in October 2016. While NOAA praised the Weather Service’s overall response, it noted that many local offices were understaffed during the storm and were depending more than usual on state and municipal forecasters to communicate with the public.

NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said the agency is “actively hiring” to fill Weather Service vacancies. He also said the agency “is prepared for Harvey.”

“Offices in Houston and Corpus Christi are fully staffed,” Vaccaro said in an email. “Our forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, local National Weather Service offices, River Forecast Centers and elsewhere are fulfilling the agency’s mission of protecting lives and property as they issue timely and accurate forecasts for Harvey.

“As this dangerous storm unfolds, NOAA will continue providing the critical forecasts and services that the public, emergency managers and other partners need to make informed decisions and remain safe.”

Hurricane Harvey updates: Texas hit by powerful storm, heavy rain

Hurricane Harvey is on track to be the strongest storm to strike the United States in 12 years. It’s forecast to make landfall on the Texas coast late Friday or early Saturday. Follow along for updates on preparations, evacuations and forecasts.

Visit the Capital Weather Gang for more on the storm.