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NOAA workers worry over Oregon move

A NOAA deep-ocean explorer, the Mt. Mitchell Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s decision move from Seattle to Newport Oregon was a “quality of life” choice, Capt. Michele Bullock told the press last summer. She’s the amiable commander of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Operations Center where the big research ships have been located for 50 years, but not much longer if NOAA has its way.

The evaluation team that chose Newport over Seattle, Port Angeles and Bellingham did so in part based on community resources such as housing, schools, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, and the cost of living; those factors, Capt. Bullock said, that will “make for a pleasant, small town way of life” for the employees. The team found rural Lincoln County, Oregon a better place to live than Seattle and Bellingham, university towns noted for their arts and music.

Since we posted a few stories about the move, we’ve had mail from NOAA civilian employees who are baffled and angry at the prospect. They have written Crosscut, questioning the quality of the life Capt. Bullock cheerfully predicts for the NOAA work force in a resort town of 10,000 that thrives on tourists in the summer and languishes in the winter. The letters we’ve seen so far come from civilian employees, most of them highly trained engineers and electronic technicians who maintain NOAA’s Pacific research fleet, including the incredibly complex communications and computer systems of these floating science labs.

“We’re the guys who keep the ships operating, stem to stern,” one of the engineers told Crosscut. “The uniformed Corps comes aboard, we toss them the keys and hope they don’t run into anything.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had its beginnings in the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson directed the Coast and Geodetic Survey to survey the coast. Only 300 members wear NOAA’s dress whites, but the whole agency projects an image of white hats. It administers the National Weather Service, providing the daily forecast that can save your day or your business and help your local TV weather guy seem smarter than he really is. NOAA’s in charge of protecting our ocean fisheries, and its civilian scientists know more about the physical and biological nature of the oceans than anyone else on the planet. They’re in the forefront of knowledge about drought, air pollution, climate change, and melting of the polar ice cap.

Members of the uniformed NOAA Corps are not supposed to talk to the press about the move to Newport. Neither are the civilian workers for that matter, but they do it anyway. Officially, all media queries are referred to Public Information Officer David Hall in Washington, DC, who isn’t answering any questions.

The employees who are quietly in touch with Crosscut worry about the schools in Newport, the scarcity of housing, and the cuts in pay they will face when they move. Federal workers are paid according to the purported cost of living in the region where they’re assigned. Seattle ranks high in cost and equivalently high in pay. Newport doesn’t. The NOAA workers we heard from expect to lose as much as 7 percent in wages because, according to the federal formula, living’s easier in a small town.

No doubt it costs less to live in Lincoln County than in the Seattle area. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest figures showed the median home value in Lincoln County to be about 62 percent of the King County median. However, as in many resort towns, there’s a fluctuating scarcity of housing. And the NOAA employees writing Crosscut don’t feel good about what they see and hear.

“Overpriced beach front condos,” was one description, “then some really plain, really low-class houses, but not much in between. Middle class there is not what we think of as middle class in Seattle or in the suburbs.”

NOAA’s effect on housing seems certain to be dramatic. Dropping 175 new households into Lincoln County is, numerically speaking, like 7,169 new families arriving in King County and demanding homes and schools.

Among the employees Crosscut heard from — a small sliver of the 175-member civilian work force — there’s a prevailing tone of distrust (some call it “disgust”) with what they claim is NOAA’s disregard for the upheaval the move will create within workers’ families. According to one correspondent, Capt. Bullock told employees at a holiday gathering in December, “I wish people would just get over it. We’re moving to Newport.” Is that what she meant to say? We’ll never know. Capt. Bullock declines to talk about the transfer, referring all questions to public information officer David Hall, who isn’t talking, either.

NOAA is structured and administered as a military organization. Uniformed members of the Corps go where they’re told. The civilian workers say they also have been told that it’s move or quit. Even those whose spend most of their working time at sea, aboard the research vessels, will not have the option of continuing to live in Seattle and commuting to their ships, although that’s often what they do now, flying out to meet a ship at a far Pacific port.

On Wednesday, Jan. 14, PIO Hall responded to Crosscut’s questions, after weeks of queries: “Thank you for the opportunity to comment. As you are aware, we are in the process of determining how to respond to the concerns brought up by the GAO, so it would be premature to respond to specific questions.”

The concerns brought up by the Government Accountability Office have to do with locating the new Marine Operations Center on a Newport flood plain, which federal regulations prohibit except when there’s no alternative. NOAA has to show the GAO that Newport was not just the best choice, but the only choice.

That isn’t the sort of question that seems most on the minds of the households who’re being required to relocate. Judging from the letters, they want to know about schools, housing, hospitals and pay cuts; the impact on families, of moving from a Seattle suburb to an Oregon beach resort.

What will be done to ease the transition for NOAA families moving from a cosmopolitan center to a very homogeneous small town? Is NOAA easing the transition by checking out schools and real estate, community clubs, cultural activities? Could be. That’s one of the things we wanted to ask. But that question, as with all others, is too sensitive for NOAA to handle right now.

It may be that NOAA deals with its employees with more understanding than the employees’ letters indicate. But if they’re treated with the condescension the agency displays in its public relations function, no wonder they’re peeved.

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