FEMA recalls some workers to deal with storm; other first responders remain furloughed

As Tropical Storm Karen churned toward the Gulf Coast, Obama administration agencies scrambled Thursday to end furloughs for at least some disaster response employees.

However, some Louisiana officials fretted that the federal government shutdown consumes too much political capital and leaves Louisiana families at risk. The results of the impasse over the Affordable Care Act complicated storm preparations and required a shift in focus. Instead of positioning food and water supplies, the most pressing issue was which employees to call back to the office.

“We’ve got a storm brewing out in the Gulf,” U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said. “We don’t have the full force of everything that we need on board for that. Now, emergency workers are there. FEMA will show up, but there are lots of civilian support, emergency weather services that are furloughed.”

The shutdown furloughed more than 800 of the Louisiana National Guard’s civilian technicians, who help deliver meals and water during hurricanes. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which monitors dangerous weather conditions, had sent 55 percent of its staff home.

As Louisiana’s congressional delegation raised concerns, the White House announced FEMA was recalling furloughed employees and reactivating the hurricane liaison team at Miami’s National Hurricane Center. How many employees will be taken off furlough is unclear.

“Based on applicable legal requirements and consistent with its contingency plan, FEMA has begun to recall currently furloughed employees necessary to serve functions of the agency to protect life and property as they prepare for potential landfall,” said Jay Carney, White House press secretary.

Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, recalled up to 520 technicians from furlough. Gov. Bobby Jindal placed 650 Guardsmen on state active duty.

A federal defense department employee who lives in the New Orleans area said he was waiting for a phone call Thursday afternoon that would put him on state active duty because of the federal government shutdown. The employee asked that he not be identified for fear he would disciplined for speaking to a reporter.

He said state duty pays only a fraction of what federal active duty pays. He said some of his colleagues may just ignore the phone because they are upset that a political impasse is impacting their families.

“We’re not bitter, but we’re hurt. We got our stomachs punched,” he said. “The storm preparations will be affected.”

Quarrels over the Affordable Care Act kept the U.S. House and Senate from agreeing on legislation that would allow the federal government to continue to spend money. As a result, national parks closed, hunting and fishing seasons on national wildlife refuges shut down and thousands of “non-essential” employees were sent home without pay. The possibility of a hurricane adds yet another complication.

Carney said President Barack Obama is getting updates on weather changes and preparations.

Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said officials with the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, told him Thursday afternoon that furloughed employees would be recalled as needed. “They’re telling me that the employees have been notified,” he said.

Davis said state disaster officials spent Thursday through their emergency protocols such as making sure resources and state employees are ready.

Early Thursday, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, asked the White House to grant immediate authority for federal agencies “to deem all personnel essential so that hurricane preparations and response activities are not interrupted.” Richmond said food and water need to be pre-stationed and lives need to be protected.

Jindal said the state is ready for a storm, regardless of the federal shutdown.

“We won’t let the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., impact our ability to be prepared. We’re ready. We’re prepared to mobilize the Louisiana National Guard, and our state agencies are readying resources so we can protect our people and respond to this storm,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, expressed confidence after talking to Davis, who heads emergency response for the Jindal administration.

“They’ve got everything they need right now. We’ve checked with FEMA to make sure all the protocols are in place and, clearly, we’re monitoring this Tropical Storm Karen, and we want to make sure our communities will be able to respond to whatever nature brings. So far, every indication we’ve got, is that’s on track even in this current government climate,” Scalise said.

Landrieu, D-La., said the storm illustrates why the shutdown needs to end.

“We are going to try to be as ready as we can, but government needs to get back open for many reasons,” she said. “This is not Washington dysfunction. This is tea party recklesness and they are holding the government of the United States hostage and all of our private sector partners and putting communities in Louisiana at risk. And it is not fair and it needs to change.”

Mark Ballard of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.