Capitol Hill residents inspect fallen trees and heavy snow Feb. 6 during the blizzard that dumped 2 feet or more of snow on the Washington area. Another snowstorm was expected to roll into town Feb. 9, with the National Weather Service calling for snowfall totals of 10 to 20 inches. (Tom Brown / Staff)
Hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors in the Washington area were at home Tuesday due to the blizzard. But there's no rest yet for the 25 meteorologists, technicians and other employees at the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office.
Chris Strong, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service's Sterling, Va., office, said Tuesday afternoon that some employees have camped out at work or stayed in nearby hotels since the snow started last Friday. NWS also sent its four-wheel-drive trucks to pick up some employees who couldn't make it out of their neighborhoods last Saturday, Strong said.
"Being a 24-hour operation, getting people in and out is important," Strong said. "We've gotten to the point [Tuesday] where the main roads are pretty good. Now we're just waiting for the next batch and what that might do." That next batch is expected to begin Tuesday afternoon and run through most of Wednesday.
Strong said there were about 11 staffers Tuesday afternoon monitoring the impending snowstorm — Washington's second in less than a week. Weather Service employees are counted as emergency employees who are exempted from the snow days and half-days the Office of Personnel Management declared last Friday, and Monday and Tuesday.
OPM said employees with telework agreements may have to work from home. National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said she was working from home using the same BlackBerry she uses to answer weekend or after-hours calls.
But Strong said most forecast office employees need their work computers and can't telework.
"There are a lot of computer systems we use to produce forecasts that are self-contained due to net security," Strong said.
He said managers began serious preparations for the first storm Feb. 3, and said the office had a staffing plan in place 12 hours before the snow began.
Some employees in the forecast office have had to work overtime, Strong said.
Strong said that despite the bad weather, morale remains high in the forecast office. He said the meteorologists view it as their time to shine.
"Most of us enjoy big winter storms, and the challenge of forecasting and getting information out to the public," Strong said. "This is why the Weather Service is here, to protect people from big weather events."
Some employees are bringing food into the office, and cooking dinners for themselves and others, he said. And managers haven't had to remind employees to bring a toothbrush or change of clothes in case they get stuck in the office.
"Being tied into the weather, most people know that without us having to tell them," Strong said.