In late October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward New York and New Jersey, barrels of information from the National Weather Service, NASA, and elsewhere inundated the White House. As the storm picked up, experts at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, started closely monitoring storm track modeling from NOAA, satellite imagery from NASA, even detailed information like the level of wind shear at various elevations within the storm.
It fell to John Holdren, the director of that office and President Obama’s science advisor, to make sure the best information was being used to prepare. And behind Holdren was the 100-plus staff of OSTP, the relatively unknown office that, at least during the Obama years, played an outsized role in the government response to disasters, be they storms or oil spills or West African disease outbreaks.
Today, as Hurricane Irma has finally fizzled out and response and recovery efforts for it and Hurricane Harvey ramp up (and Jose twirls menancingly out over the Atlantic), an OSTP official says it is still heavily engaged in these processes. But the office has been radically transformed under the Trump administration: The official told WIRED the current staffing level is only 42, down from over 130 during the Obama years, and the president has put forward no nominee for its director. Even if the remaining staff is working diligently to aid in disaster preparedness, it is likely that all that work has little if any connection to the president’s inner circle.
During Hurricane Sandy, those connections were clear. Tamara Dickinson, the director of the energy and environment division at OSTP under Obama, served as a point person on disasters, including hurricanes. “Holdren used to call me the Disaster Queen,” she says. “He used to say that if he had an email from me in his inbox when he got up at five-thirty or six o’clock, he knew it was going to be a bad day.”
Each day as the hurricane approached, the Disaster Queen would send the science advisor an update on what the hurricane was doing—potential track, why the forecasts had changed and what it meant when they did, what the presence of a certain high- or low-pressure system meant for the next several days, and so on. These could run upwards of five pages, delving deep into the nitty gritty of hurricane science.
Holdren could then use this raft of technical detail to serve as an information resource for the White House—senior advisors, the chief of staff, and the president himself. Interagency coordination is crucial when disaster strikes, and having a centralized source for technical information and expertise can help that sort of coordination, as well as help guide top-level decision-making at the White House, Dickinson says. The primary White House body responsible for responding to catastrophes natural or otherwise is the National Security Council (current website status: “Check back soon for more information”), and OSTP also maintained strong relationships with the staff there.
Today, whether OSTP’s expertise is at all connected up the chain is unclear, since what was once Holdren’s position remains vacant. And while OSTP says that disaster response across agencies is being coordinated by Assistant Director for Natural Disaster Resilience Jacqueline Meszaros, whose tenure at OSTP predates the new administration, questions about whether Meszaros actually has access to the president or top advisors—as Dickinson, through Holdren, did—have gone unanswered.
Aside from those immediate preparations, the office can also serve as a connection to the universe of expertise outside the government. As Hurricane Sandy’s water began to recede and the recovery began, the Obama OSTP began leveraging those connections. Brian Forde, who at the time was the Senior Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer for Mobile and Data Innovation (he is now running for Congress in California’s 45th District), coordinated a number of projects with large tech companies, open source coders, and even high school students to help people in the aftermath of the storm.
Forde remembers being called to the Situation Room to explain to Cabinet members how various tech companies’ platforms could be used to aid the response to Sandy. “You’re not allowed to bring technology into the Situation Room, so I had to print out screen shots of what these tools could do, and then demonstrate to them the value of it,” he says. As he started passing out the screen shots, leaders of the various agencies including FEMA’s Craig Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and others “jumped out of their seats and huddled around the table,” eager to see how Airbnb, Google, and others might help deal with the array of individual crises a large storm leaves in its wake.
In the wake of Harvey and Irma, it’s unclear if anyone from OSTP is filling that technological role. But as Forde notes, the whole point of the Sandy efforts was to make tools available for the next storm, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. Airbnb continues to help find housing for victims of Harvey and Irma, and Google’s Crisis Map is operating for both storms as well—both projects that OSTP helped coordinate after Sandy.
OSTP is adamant that it is still helping with hurricane response. But the details of that involvement and how it corresponds with the previous administration’s efforts is unclear. Questions about the specific response efforts have not been answered, by the OSTP source or by the White House press office.
“One thing that OSTP has traditionally been helpful in is identifying gaps and needs that exist, communicating those gaps and needs to the science and technology community beyond the federal government, and calling that community to action in creating these solutions,” says Cristin Dorgelo, the OSTP chief of staff under Obama. “That role, without a strong OSTP, is not being led, as far as I can tell.”
Happily, the sort of institutional resiliency Forde described is apparent elsewhere in government too. FEMA’s response to Harvey has been praised, with much credit going to the Obama administration and career civil servants who worked hard to prepare for future storms after Katrina and Sandy. (Thanks in large part to Dickinson’s efforts to mobilize the disaster science community, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force’s final report included substantial science input from OSTP and elsewhere, helping ensure the scientific basis for its conclusions was strong.)
But the true test will be in recovery, and with the unexpected perils that emerge after a storm of this scale hits—like, for example, the chemical plant explosions and spills facing the Houston area. With the Environmental Protection Agency suffering the foundational indignities of an ongoing dead-of-night dismantling, a solid source of expertise close to the White House might help guide the response.
“OSTP’s role was to bring science to the table, and to make sure the science was as accurate as possible,” Dickinson says. Today? “My hunch is that’s not going on. But it’s just a hunch.”