The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's acting chief scientist said in an email to colleagues Sunday that he is investigating whether the agency's response to President Donald Trump's Hurricane Dorian tweets constituted a violation of NOAA policies and ethics. Also on Monday, the director of the National Weather Service broke with NOAA leadership over its handling of Trump's Dorian tweets and statements.
In an email to NOAA staff that was obtained by The Washington Post, the official, Craig McLean, called the agency's response "political" and a "danger to public health and safety."
Trump's incorrect assertion on Sept. 1 that Alabama "would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" set off a chain of confusion and outrage among the public, and within NOAA. At the time, the National Weather Service's forecast guidance showed only a very small risk (about 5%) of tropical storm-force winds for a small portion of Alabama. However, Alabama was not in the storm forecast track from the National Hurricane Center, which showed Hurricane Dorian skirting the East Coast.
While the NWS's Birmingham, Alabama office set the record straight, stating Alabama "would not see impacts" from the storm, NOAA officials caused an internal uproar on Sept. 6 when the agency issued an unsigned statement that defended Trump's false claim about Alabama and admonished the Weather Service's Birmingham division for speaking "in absolute terms." Acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs and NOAA communications director Julie Kay Roberts were involved in drafting Friday's statement.
NOAA and NWS had also appeared to try to correct the record without angering the president. According to emails obtained by The Post, prior to the statement on Friday, NOAA staff were instructed to "only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon" and not to "provide any opinion" in response to Trump's initial Alabama tweets.
The agency sent a similar message warning scientists and meteorologists not to speak out on Sept. 4, after Trump showed a hurricane map from Aug. 29 modified with a hand-drawn, half-circle in black Sharpie around Alabama.
Scientists attacked NOAA officials for conceding to Trump during a weather emergency, when accuracy and messaging are vital to keep the public safe.
The American Meteorological Society issued a statement of support for the NWS, writing: "AMS believes the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama."
In his email to employees Sunday, McLean criticized his agency's public statement, saying it prioritized politics over NOAA's mission.
"The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should," McLean wrote. "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."
- NOAA staff told not to contradict Trump
- NOAA backs Trump on Alabama forecast, and rebukes Weather Service office that accurately contradicted him
He also wrote that "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."
"If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster's warnings and products, that specific danger arises," McLean wrote.
As a result, McLean told his staff that "I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity."
"I have a responsibility to pursue these truths," he added. "I will." McLean has extensive experience in NOAA's ocean programs, and is also an attorney who has practiced marine resource law. He has been awarded the Department of Commerce Silver and Bronze Medals, among other accolades.
A National Weather Service spokesperson stressed the agency is committed to promoting and maintaining scientific integrity when asked about the McLean email. "The NWS leadership team stands with the entire National Weather Service workforce and will continue to uphold the scientific integrity of the forecast process as it was skillfully applied by all NWS offices last week to ensure public safety, first and foremost," the spokesperson said.
In response to McLean's email, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen stated: "NOAA's policies on scientific integrity and communications are among the strongest in the federal government, and get high marks from third party observers. The agency's senior career leaders are free to express their opinions about matters of agency operations and science. The agency will not be providing further official comment, and will not speculate on internal reviews."
Also on Monday, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini received a standing ovation at a major weather industry conference in Huntsville, Alabama, when he broke with his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by enthusiastically backing his agency's forecasters regarding their performance during Hurricane Dorian.
Uccellini, who has been part of NWS since 1989, praised Birmingham's NWS office for clarifying that there was no threat to the region and upholding "the integrity of the forecasting process."
"They did what any office would do," Uccellini told the crowd of hundreds of meteorologists. "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," Uccellini said. "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 noted the strong relationships the Birmingham office has with local emergency officials, particularly in the wake of tornadoes that killed 23 in the region in March. He said these emergency officials praised the Birmingham weather team's speed in quashing the false information.
"Let me be clear: the Birmingham office did this to stop public panic," he said, and "to ensure public safety."
He then called for members of the Birmingham NWS office to stand, along with all NWS employees. Attendees gave them a loud, minute-long standing ovation, and also gave Uccellini a standing ovation.
NOAA's Jacobs, who has a science background in computer modeling and has sought to improve NWS forecast models, is slated to address the same Alabama audience on Tuesday morning, and there is social media chatter of planned protests of his speech.
At stake is public trust in weather forecasts and warnings aimed at saving lives and protecting property, as many current and former NOAA leaders and meteorologists have expressed fear that this controversy has damaged NWS's credibility by politicizing weather forecasts
The unsigned statement NOAA released late Friday justified Trump's tweets and statements throughout the past week on Hurricane Dorian's threat to Alabama by noting that the possibility of tropical storm-force winds meant that Alabama could be affected.
Trump's tweet that Alabama would be affected by the storm gained national attention last Wednesday when he presented the version of the forecast cone from Aug. 29, extended into Alabama - modified using a Sharpie. The crudely altered map appeared to represent an effort to retroactively justify the original Alabama tweet.
In the face of criticism about the modified map, Trump fired off additional tweets Wednesday and Thursday, insisting Alabama was at risk all along, including presenting a map from Aug. 29 depicting a small possibility that Alabama would see tropical-storm-force winds.
But, on Sunday morning, Sept. 1, when Trump tweeted about the Alabama threat, no credible computer model showed any serious risk to the state.
This article was written by Kayla Epstein, Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow, reporters for The Washington Post.