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Shutdown Impact on South Florida: Everglades Threatened & Hurricane Research Halted

Miami Herald
A visitor reads information in Everglades National Park on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 in Homestead.

Heading into the third week of the partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump told reporters outside the White House that he can relate to the pain of federal workers who aren’t receiving paychecks.

“Many of those people that won’t be receiving a paycheck, many of those people agree 100 percent with what I’m doing,” he said.

One of the federal workers who doesn’t agree with the president is South Florida resident and economist Scott Crosson, whose workload has piled up since the shutdown began on December 22. 

“What goes through your head is how you’re going to make your next mortgage payment, or how you’re going to get food for your family,” Crosson said.

Crosson is one of the over 100 furloughed employees of the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southeast Fisheries Science Center on Miami's Virginia Key. The shutdown has emptied NOAA labs nationwideand interrupted time-sensitive scientific research, as researchers aren't allowed to enter the research facilities or use their computers. 

Crosson is part of a team that measures the economic impact of disasters like hurricanes on fisheries. When hurricane Harvey hit Texas; Maria hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and Irma hit Florida, he was immediately out in the field gathering damage estimates. The information had to be delivered to Congress within 60 days of the disaster declared. 

“We have to work with the state governments to provide information to Congress so they have some idea, when they do a disaster relief fund, how much they should be giving and what the actual damages are that are there,” Crosson said.

Before the federal government shutdown, the most pressing task on his agenda was gathering data for a report for Congress measuring disaster relief funding needed after hurricanes Florence and Michael. 

“We’ve had to stop work on that right now, and Congress doesn’t have that information,” he said.

He said because of the shutdown, he has no idea how much time it will take for the relief funds to make it to those fisheries affected by Florence and Michael. Congress still has to appropriate the funds. 

Even if he wanted to get a head start on the backlogged research, he can’t access it.

“None of us are allowed to work right now -- we’re not allowed to use our federal email, we’re not allowed to use any federal data, we’re not allowed to use our federal computers,” said Crosson.

Who he’s really worried about, he said, are the NOAA government contractors in their 20's and 30's who may not have a savings cushion while living in an expensive city like Miami.

“I do worry about them,” he said. “A lot of the ones that we encounter are people are recent college graduates. And so those folks, if they’re not able to work right now, if they don’t have a paycheck coming in, I don’t know what will happen to them.”

"It's a day-to-day suspense"

Others across South Florida who have started to notice the effects of the shutdown include Everglades kayaking tour guide, Anna Scharnagl. She said she is not a government employee, but her business, Garl’s Coastal Kayaking, relies on Everglades tourism.

“Our fate is tied to theirs, and fortunately ENP's (Everglades National Park) gates have remained open and we continue to run,” Scharnagl said. “But it is a day-to-day suspense wondering if each day will be the last for a while.”

Scharnagl was one of many volunteers and non-profit groups guiding tourists through the Everglades -- even though park rangers and federal employees are scarce.

During the holidays, she said she led kayak tours every day -- and started to notice the pileup of trash and dangers that come with lack of enforcement.

“Though volunteers and kind souls are keeping bathrooms openand trash cans emptied, there is a huge increase in trash, from beer cans to underwear to styrofoam balls, littering the side of the road,” she said.

Gradually, she’s noticed a collapse of rules and regulations in the Everglades. With the park already enduring illegal poaching, she said misbehavior of this kind has definitely amped up in the park.

“Fishing and boating is permitted in certain areas of the park, however, in this past week I have seen the wrong kinds of boats in certain areas, where motors are not allowed due to the damage they would influct on the fragile ecosystem,” she said.

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