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Major emergency response jobs in Trump's government vacant as second massive storm looms

Tribune Washington Bureau logoTribune Washington Bureau 9/7/2017 By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

People pull out their boats from the Haulover Marine Center on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 in Miami Beach, Fla. as they prepare for Hurricane Irma. © David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS People pull out their boats from the Haulover Marine Center on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 in Miami Beach, Fla. as they prepare for Hurricane Irma. WASHINGTON - As a second powerful storm races toward Florida, several top administration positions tasked with protecting the country's coastline from hurricanes remain vacant, underscoring the difficulty President Donald Trump has had filling his government eight months into the job.

The National Hurricane Center's director and the chief of its Hurricane Specialists Unit have no permanent leadership appointed; they are instead being led by officials in the roles temporarily. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which serves as the government's command center tracking weather challenges, is also without a permanent leader.

"It's funny how Americans, as a culture, we would not accept a temporary coach at the start of ACC football season, but we'll go into the hurricane season with a temporary leader," said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina after that 2005 storm. "It's not that he's a bad guy, but it shows where we put our priorities."

The problem at these critical agencies mirrors challenges across the government - hundreds of key positions, from agency directors to ambassadors, remain open in almost every part of the executive branch.

The White House blames Democrats for obstructing nominees. Trump also has been slow to nominate people for these leadership positions.

Despite the concerns, NOAA says it's prepared for Hurricane Irma and whatever hurricane comes next. Chris Vaccaro, a NOAA spokesman, said seasoned veterans are currently in those positions overseeing regular forecasts and fulfilling the agency's mission of protecting lives and property. Vaccaro said Ed Rappaport, a 30-year veteran at the National Hurricane Center, will remain the center's acting director for the rest of this hurricane season.

"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," Vaccaro said.

The Government Accountability Office reported in May that the high number of vacancies at NOAA's National Weather Service has led to burnout among meteorologists who are frequently working overtime.

"The long-term result has been that employees are fatigued and morale is low, according to the officials," the report found.

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee raised more concerns about vacancies at many of the National Weather Service's 122 local weather offices .

"Given the importance of the NWS mission to protect the lives and property of our Nation's citizens, extended vacancies are unacceptable - particularly when the Committee has provided more than adequate resources and direction to fill vacancies," the report stated.

Honore said the agency did good work on Hurricane Harvey, providing accurate and timely predictions.

But James Witt, a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton, said more permanent leadership and a proper chain of command is important to assure the right decisions are made without delay.

"The president really needs to fill those vacancies as soon as he can because it's a continuing problem not having the right people in the right place to make decisions to do good things," Witt said.

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