Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) declared a state of emergency on Thursday as the only-partially-shut-down National Hurricane Center warned that Tropical Storm Karen could become a hurricane by early Saturday.
An advisory issued Thursday said that the tropical depression had strengthened to a tropical storm after winds hit 65 m.p.h. The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for the Gulf Coast from Grand Isle, LA, to Indian Pass, FL.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama had been updated about the storm during a Thursday morning briefing, and had directed FEMA to recall some furloughed employees to begin to prepare for Karen. 11,468 out of the 14,729 employees at FEMA were deemed essential and stayed on staff, so recalled staff would be in addition to that number.
Visitors to the National Hurricane Center’s website see a message at the top explaining why they are still able to see hurricane warnings: “Due to the Federal Government shutdown, NOAA.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable. However, because the information this site provides is necessary to protect life and property, it will be updated and maintained during the Federal Government shutdown.”
Most reporting on the impacts of the shutdown briefly mentions that the Center will continue to track storms. Forecasting, technical, and front desk staff are still working, though “non-exempted” staff like the Center’s spokesperson was out on furlough due to the shutdown on Wednesday. He was recalled on Thursday.
Hurricane Hunters, who fly into the middle of storms to gather essential data to more accurately forecast hurricane paths, are also feeling the pinch of the shutdown. Though the meteorologists and Air Force pilots are still working and able to fly into a storm to track it, the Air Reserve Technicians that support the flights are furloughed. The Hurricane Hunters themselves are working for free in addition to being shorthanded.
The crew flew three passes through Karen on Thursday morning to obtain the 65 m.p.h. readings.
James Franklin, head of hurricane operations at the Center, told Al Jazeera America that “We know that our track forecasts are better when they fly. Our estimates of the initial position are better when they’re flying. We put out better watches and warnings when they’re there. It’s information that we really can’t get any other way.”
A tropical storm turns into a hurricane when it achieves winds of 75 m.p.h. This would be the first tropical storm to threaten the mainland United States in 2013, which has been a slow storm year so far. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground said that though there are some factors (dry wind off the Yucatan, moderate wind shear) that might weaken Tropical Storm Karen, ocean temperatures are very warm, fueling it with energy:
It’s not often that one sees a new storm start out with 60 mph sustained winds, but that’s what an Air Force hurricane hunter plane found this morning near 7:30 am EDT, when they sampled the northern portion of the storm. … Karen has a strong upper-level outflow channel to its north that is helping ventilate the storm, though, and ocean temperatures are a very warm 29°C (84°F). Between 7 am and 9:30 am EDT the Hurricane Hunters made three passes though the center of Karen, and the central pressure stayed roughly constant at 1004 mb, so Karen is not undergoing much change.
Masters’ forecast notes a 28 percent chance that Karen will be a hurricane on Saturday morning, due to anticipated dry air and wind shear in its path.