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How Trump’s False Dorian Forecast Sparked a Crisis at NOAA

Illustration: Tim O’Brien

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, is supposed to serve an apolitical mission of supporting scientists and their research, collecting data, and informing the American public — which, in the case of severe weather, can save lives. Before last week, the NOAA had been subjected to relatively few Trump administration scandals, but then our president decided to dig in on his erroneous warning that Alabama was in Hurricane Dorian’s path, infamously taking a Sharpie to a National Hurricane Center map.

After President Trump spent most of last week desperately trying to prove that there was a threat to Alabama, NOAA officials set off a bomb cyclone of outrage by releasing a statement on Friday in which they seemed to side with the president over the science and scientists that the agency supports. On Monday, it emerged that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top NOAA employees after subordinates contradicted Trump by issuing factual weather information.

Below is what we know about the developing crisis at the agency, and the Trump administration’s ongoing politicization of the weather.

Trump’s Bad Forecast and a National Weather Service Office’s Effort to Correct it

On the morning of Sunday, September 1, just hours before Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, President Trump fired off a tweet to his more than 64 million followers listing Alabama as one of the U.S. states which “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Dorian.

The president was mistaken: Up-to-date NWS forecasts predicted virtually no impact on the state. At worst, in a few unlikely scenarios, a sliver of the state might have been brushed with tropical-storm-force winds from the outermost edge of the storm, but Dorian was expected remain out of range to the east.

According to the Washington Post, Trump’s erroneous forecast prompted a wave of calls from concerned Alabamians to the National Weather Service’s office in Birmingham. Twenty minutes after Trump sent his tweet, NWS Birmingham used its Twitter account to inform the state’s residents that they were not in danger. The office did not reference Trump or his tweet, but reiterated what the NWS had already forecast:

NWS Birmingham performed a neutral and necessary public service, but the announcement was also an inconvenient government-issued truth which contradicted a pathologically incorrigible president. And within a week, someone at the NOAA tried fix that incongruity.

The NOAA’s Trump-Serving Repudiation of Its Own Forecasters

On Friday night, September 6, the NOAA’s communications team put out an unprecedented statement which tried to justify President Trump’s increasingly desperate insistence that Alabama was threatened by Dorian. The official statement — which was conspicuously unsigned — went so far as to repudiate NWS Birmingham’s effort to correct the president’s misinformation, even deploying scientific jargon that was disingenuous at best.

NWS Birmingham’s Sunday tweet, the NOAA statement claimed, “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

The statement also offered an equally disingenuous lifeline to the struggling president, noting that NWS and National Hurricane Center forecasts and maps had “clearly demonstrated” that “tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama.”

This framing reflected Trump’s evolving explanation for his mistake, which centered around passing the buck (he was just repeating what he had been told) and claiming Alabama could potentially have been impacted by Dorian — even though that was already very unlikely on Sunday, and that wasn’t what he’d tweeted. In addition, if — as the NOAA statement claimed — NHC maps had “clearly demonstrated” this potential impact, why did Trump need to draw a haphazard circle around Alabama with a Sharpie in the NHC map he used as an Oval Office prop?

NOAA Memos Instruct Staff Not to Contradict Trump

On Saturday night, the Washington Post reported that shortly after the NWS Birmingham assured Alabamians that they weren’t in Dorian’s fearsome crosshairs, “a top NOAA official warned [agency] staff against contradicting the president.”

Per the unnamed NOAA meteorologist who spoke with the Post, the top official fired off an agency-wide directive instructing National Weather Service staffers not to “provide any opinion” and to “only stick with National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.” Another similar warning was sent out on September 4 after President Trump brandished his Sharpie-altered NHC forecast map where Dorian’s projected path had been extended over Alabama.

In response to the report, a “NWS spokesperson” told the Post that “NWS leadership sent this guidance to field staff so they (and the entire agency) could maintain operational focus on Dorian and other severe weather hazards without distraction.”

The meteorologist who informed the Post about the directives indicated that he and others perceived a different meaning:

This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast … It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring — ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do.

On Twitter, NBC Sports journalist Craig Calcaterra passed along a similarly shocked reaction from his father, who also worked for the NWS:

While NOAA’s Friday statement was not attributed to a specific person, the Washington Post subsequently reported that according to an unnamed agency official, the NOAA’s Trump-appointed acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, and the agency’s communications director, Trump campaign veteran Julie Kay Roberts, “were involved” in drafting the statement. The Post’s source also claimed that the Commerce Department, which oversees the NOAA, had approved the message — though at a time when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was not in the country.

It is not yet clear who wrote the “no opinion” directives.

Shock, Outrage, and an Outpouring of Support for Staff at the NWS and NOAA

The anonymous NOAA statement and apparent efforts to mute pushback within the agency may have pleased the loyalty-obsessed Trump and his allies, but they triggered fierce backlash and widespread solidarity in the weather community, where the stakes were immediately clear.

As the Post’s Capital Weather Gang succinctly summarized on Saturday, “The firestorm surrounding the president’s hurricane statements is unprecedented in the [NOAA’s] history, and threatens to politicize something that most Americans take for granted as an objective, if flawed, part of daily life: the weather forecast.”

The NOAA’s Friday statement was quickly and roundly criticized as an irresponsible political obfuscation by numerous well-respected meteorologists, scientists, media figures, the American Meteorological Society, and former NOAA officials. All sought to prevent the agency’s hardworking forecasters — and the public’s confidence in the often life-saving information they provide — from becoming collateral damage in another one of President Trump’s battles with reality. Many also emphasized how outrageous it was to leverage one the NOAA’s most critical assets — its credibility — in service of Trump’s petty attempt to gaslight the nation.

The president of the NWS labor union quickly emphasized that “the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous [statement] sent out by NOAA management.”

Four former NOAA administrators from the past three presidential administrations also weighed in. Katherine Sullivan and Jane Lubchenco, who ran the agency under President Obama, and James Baker, who ran it under President Clinton, sharply criticized the capitulation and defended NWS scientists. Sullivan told the Washington Post that the NOAA statement was “a major breach of scientific integrity that damages the NWS and stains the agency’s leadership,” particularly since there has been a long tradition at the NOAA “to not let any political factors sway the scientific credibility and clarity of Weather Service forecasts and warnings.” Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, who ran the agency under President George W. Bush, offered less direct criticism, announcing his “complete faith” in NWS employees instead.

Former NOAA chief operating officer David Titley, a political appointee under President Obama, was far more direct:

GOP-appointed former NWS director Elbert “Joe” Friday commented that “rewriting history to satisfy an ego diminishes [the] NOAA,” and former NHC director Bill Read called the Friday statement “heartbreaking” and was the first to reveal that agency employees had apparently been barred from commenting on the issue.

Another former NOAA official, Monica Medina, went so far as call for a congressional investigation into who authorized the unattributed statement.

And despite being instructed to withhold their opinions on the matter, some NWS staffers chose to speak out anyway:

They were soon joined by some of the highest career officials within the agency.

NOAA’s Chief Scientist Criticizes Agency Leaders — and Vows to Investigate

In a Sunday email to NOAA employees, which was obtained by the Washington Post, the agency’s chief acting scientist, Craig McLean, joined the backlash and announced that he would be launching an investigation into the NOAA statement, which he seemed to confirm was politically motivated:

The NWS [Birmingham] Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should … There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from ‘NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.

McLean, who is also an attorney, announced that he was investigating the issue as “potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.”

“The content of this press release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” McLean wrote. “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”

The NWS Director Bucks NOAA Leadership, Backs Forecasters

The “official” NOAA repudiation on Friday also drew a rebuke from National Weather Service director Louis Uccellini. Monday, at a weather industry conference, in Alabama of all places, Uccellini offered his unwavering support to NWS Birmingham’s forecasters in a speech to hundreds of meteorologists:

They did what any office would do. With an emphasis they deemed essential, they shut down what they thought were rumors. They quickly acted to reassure their partners, the media and the public — with strong language — that there was no threat. They did that with one thing in mind: public safety. And they responded not knowing where this information was coming from. Only later, [when] the retweets and the politically-based comments came into their office, did they learn the source of this information.

Uccellini received a standing ovation.

Wilbur Ross’s Threat to Fire Top NOAA Employees

On Monday afternoon, the New York Times revealed disturbing details about the origin of the mysteriously unsigned NOAA statement. The paper reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had gone so far as to threaten firings at the agency if it did not do something to address its initial contradiction of President Trump’s Alabama forecast. Ross laid out his demand to Neil Jacobs, a political appointee who is the acting administrator of NOAA. Jacobs reportedly pushed back, but evidently backed down in the end.

In a statement to Intelligencer, a Commerce Department spokesperson denied the Times story, insisting that “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”

Multiple Democratic members of Congress have called for Ross’s resignation in response to the report.

This post has been updated to include the Commerce Department’s statement.

How Trump’s False Dorian Forecast Sparked a Crisis at NOAA