Shutdown could hurt NC tourism from mountains to coast

mquillin@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2013 

  • What’s open, what’s not

    Here’s a rundown of how a federal government shutdown will affect some federal agencies:

    • The federal courts have two weeks of operating reserves to continue operating as usual for the short-term, said Charles Hall, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

    If a shutdown lasts longer than that, operations will be curtailed but the courts will continue operating “to some degree,” Hall said. That includes the expectation that many criminal trials will continue and probation officers will remain on the job.

    “We’re simply not going to let people with criminal histories go unsupervised in the community,” Hall said.

    • The Environmental Protection Agency’s massive air pollution research and regulation facility in Research Triangle Park will close its doors. Most of the 2,000 employees and contractors would be furloughed, with the exceptions being those needed to protect federal property and maintain lab animals, plants and other organisms used in research.

    Overall, all but 907 of EPA’s 16,200 employees, or about 6 percent, would be furloughed.

    • The Internal Revenue Service will operate on a limited basis. Among other things, that means it would continue law enforcement and undercover operations and will make sure that it doesn’t lose data in its computers.

    But it will halt tax collection and processing activities that aren’t automated. It also will halt taxpayer services, including responding to taxpayer questions over the phone. And taxpayers with appointments related to an audit or appeal “should assume their meetings are canceled. IRS personnel would reschedule those meetings at a later date,” according to the agency.

    • The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in RTP, which studies how the environment affects human health, would close. All workers would be furloughed except those required to protect buildings and equipment and care for animals and cell lines used for research.

    •  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will continue to inspect nuclear power plants. Its work is considered essential to public health and safety, spokesman Joey Ledford said in an email.

    •  The Small Business Administration will continue to offer disaster loans for businesses, but most other programs would be closed. That includes other loan programs, Small Business Innovation Research grants and Small Business Development Centers.

    • The Social Security Administration will continue to pay benefits, and local offices will remain open, but services at those offices will be pared back.

    Local offices will continue to handle applications for benefits and requests for appeals. But they won’t be providing new or replacement Social Security cards or providing replacement Medicare cards. Nor will they handle Freedom of Information Act requests.

    • At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, federal air traffic controllers will remain on the job. Airport screeners and federal inspectors will continue enforcing safety rules.

    • The Food and Drug Administration will handle high-risk recalls but suspend most routine safety inspections. Federal meat inspections are expected to proceed as usual.

    • School lunches and breakfasts will continue to be served, and food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will be distributed. But several smaller feeding programs will not have the money to operate.

    • Federal occupational safety and health inspectors will stop workplace inspections except in cases of imminent danger.

    • Veterans will be able to get inpatient care, mental health counseling and prescriptions filled at VA hospitals because lawmakers approve the money for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health programs a year in advance. Crisis hotlines will be staffed and claims workers will process payments to cover disability and pension benefits. But veterans appealing the denial of disability benefits to the Board of Veterans Appeals will have to wait longer for a decision because the board will not issue decisions during a shutdown.

    • All active-duty military will stay on duty, but their paychecks will be be delayed. About half of the Defense Department’s civilian employees will be furloughed.

    • Mail will be delivered as usual because the U.S. Postal Service receives no tax money for day-to-day operations.

    • The Federal Housing Administration, which guarantees about 30 percent of home mortgages, won’t underwrite or approve new loans during the shutdown. Action on government-backed loans to small businesses will be suspended.

    Staff and wire reports

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Shutting down the 70 miles of beach inside Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the first day of striper season – and just as the drum, blues and pompano are starting to show up – could have the same effect on the Outer Banks’ fall tourism season as a major hurricane.

Except that instead of helping businesses recover from a financial disaster afterward, this time the federal government would be to blame.

“There would be devastation here, truthfully,” said Scott Leggat, vice president of marketing and administration for Outer Beaches Realty, which manages 500 rental homes and condos on Hatteras Island. “We’ve had two years in a row of hurricanes, followed by weeks and weeks of road closures on the island that killed the fall season.

“We’ve had our fingers crossed for weeks hoping for no tropical storms, and it looks like we’re finally there, and then this? This could be worse than any storm that we’ve imagined.”

Barring a last-minute agreement between House Republicans and Senate Democrats on budget legislation, operations of the federal government that rely on annual appropriations were scheduled to shut down at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. While the arguments happen in Washington, the effects are felt across the country and from one end of North Carolina to the other.

The National Park Service would lock all the gates that provide fishermen a way to drive onto the beach during the popular fall fishing season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Farther south, Cape Lookout National Seashore also would be closed, including to pedestrians. Visitor centers would close, along with campgrounds, though campers would be given 48 hours to evacuate their sites. The Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island lighthouses would be closed, as would the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, said Cyndy Holda, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Outer Banks Group. Three air strips inside the federal coast parks also will be closed.

Tuesday morning, Holda said, “We’ll all come to work as usual,” and find out whether the government is still operating. If not, rangers will go about shutting down facilities and notifying visitors, and then all but essential personnel will begin a furlough of indeterminate length.

Just as they do when a storm is spinning toward them in the Atlantic Ocean, Holda said, “We’re prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.”

On the western end of the state, mountain communities getting ready for their busiest time of year – leaf-viewing season – are bracing to see what the shutdown will do to their business.

Until mid-afternoon Monday, Blue Ridge Parkway officials were making plans to close down nearly all 469 miles of the scenic highway, from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, just as if a huge snow storm had made the two-lane road impassable. But then the Department of the Interior issued a new directive, said Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the parkway: The roadway itself will remain open, but all park-run facilities such as visitor centers, campgrounds and picnic areas would be closed and all but 43 of the parkway’s 238 employees will be sent home.

All facilities in the Smokies park also will close if the government shuts down, though U.S. 441 that runs through the park will remain open.

October is one of the busiest months of the year on the parkway, as drivers amble along the peak-hugging highway to take in panoramic views painted in the reds and golds of autumn. At higher elevations, trees and wildflowers already are showing bits of color.

While they’re in the area, many visitors stay in hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns along the parkway or in communities a few miles off the route. They shop for quilts and apple butter in local stores. They eat smoked trout in area restaurants.

“This is our biggest month,” said Jackie Jensen, owner of Switzerland Inn in the community of Little Switzerland, on the parkway in McDowell County.

Monday, Jensen said she had gotten a lot of calls from people planning trips wondering whether the inn would be open.

Absolutely, Jensen told them.

Whatever the government does, she said, “We’re going to be open, the color is going to be beautiful and our fire places are going.”

Jensen, like other people who earn their living from parkway visitors, hope word gets out that the road is still open. But come November, Jensen will stop worrying about whether the shutdown will hurt her business. At the end of October, as she does every year, she’ll shut down, too.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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