The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) disavowed its own agency’s findings in a brief statement on September 6 2019, siding with United States President Donald Trump amid allegations that the president may have illegally altered a map displaying the potential impact of Hurricane Dorian.
“From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” NOAA said in its statement.
The unsigned statement, released late on a Friday evening on the East Coast, came several days after the president displayed a map of the hurricane’s path that bore a black circle showing Dorian hitting the stage, even though the original map clearly showed that the storm would do otherwise.
Trump’s September 1 2019 claim that Alabama would be hit was soon refuted by the National Weather Service’s office in Birmingham on Twitter. “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from
#Dorian,” wrote the office. “We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
But NOAA disavowed that tweet in its September 6 statement, saying, “The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
NOAA chief acting scientist Craig McLean has reportedly vowed to investigate the anonymous statement, saying it “compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”
Asked by reporters who added the extra circle on the map, Trump said he did not know. Hours before NOAA’s statement, the Washington Post reported that the president was the one behind the alteration. Federal law states:
Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather conditions falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the Government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both.
For days, Trump continued to push the claim, saying that unknown “original scenarios” showed Alabama was in the path of the storm — the latest in a series of instances in which the president defended long-debunked information. (Hurricane Dorian did not pass over Alabama.)
Meteorologist James Spann, who was among those criticizing Trump for standing by his false claim, quickly came to the NWS Birmingham office’s defense upon the release of the NOAA statement.
“The tweet from NWS Birmingham was spot on and accurate,” he wrote on Twitter. “If they are coming after them, they might as well come after me. How in the world has it come to this? National Weather Service Employee Organization president Dan Sobien also weighed in, saying he was “embarrassed” by the rapid about-face. “Let me assure you the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management tonight
#NOAA,” he tweeted.
Update, 2:05pm 9/9/2019:
On September 9, 2019, the New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs and threatened to fire officials appointed to the agency by the Trump administration if they did not retract their debunking of the president. The phone call was reportedly made two days after Trump’s appearance with the altered map.
Update, 2:46pm 9/9/2019:
A Commerce Department spokesperson replied via email: “The New York Times story is false. Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”