NOAA leader says 'weather shouldn't be a partisan issue'

Dorian
Satellite image of Hurricane Dorian on Tuesday, Sept. 3. NOAA satellite image.
 

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Neil Jacobs, defended his agency at a major weather industry conference on Tuesday morning in an emotional speech as controversy swirls over how agency officials responded to President Donald Trump's inaccurate claim on Sept. 1 that Alabama "would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian.

Jacobs defended the agency's unusual, unsigned statement released Friday, which backed Trump's false claim about Alabama and admonished the National Weather Service's Birmingham division for speaking "in absolute terms."

"I have the utmost respect for what you do because I understand how difficult numerical weather prediction is, and how even more complicated conveying risk to the public is. The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian," Jacobs said. "What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather office, which was to calm fears and support public safety."

Regarding effects from Hurricane Dorian, Jacobs said, "At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast."

"At one point the Gulf states were at greater risk than the Atlantic coast," Jacobs said. 

Trump has maintained that he was correct in saying Alabama was at direct risk of significant impacts from Dorian, despite the lack of evidence to support his claim. At the time of his first tweet mentioning Alabama, the NWS's forecast guidance about 5 percent risk of tropical-storm-force winds for a small portion of Alabama, which was not in the storm forecast track or "cone of uncertainty" from the National Hurricane Center, which showed Hurricane Dorian skirting the East Coast far away from Alabama.

The NWS's Birmingham office quickly set the record straight, saying Alabama "would NOT see any impacts" from the storm. NWS Director Louis Uccellini said Monday that the Birmingham office was responding to an influx of calls from concerned residents that began after Trump sent the tweet, but that the Alabama forecasters only learned that Trump's tweet was what instigated the calls after they sent their tweet.

Jacobs and NOAA Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Kay Roberts were involved in drafting Friday's unusual, unsigned statement, and they may have done so at the insistence of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to The New York Times. Jacobs disputed that report, which has not been independently confirmed by The Washington Post.

"There is no pressure to change the way you communicate forecast risk into the future," Jacobs said. "No one's job is under threat: not mine, not yours. The weather service team has my full support and the support of the department."

"This is hard for me. This is hard for my friends, and this is hard for my family. I want to thank everyone who has known me and supported me. I'm the same Neil I was last Thursday," Jacobs said, referring to the day before NOAA issued its statement, which many meteorologists interpreted as throwing the Birmingham NWS office under the bus.

"Weather should not be a partisan issue. I've known some of you for more than 25 years. I haven't changed."

"Thank you for the job you do and thank you for the lives you saved," he said.

Hinting that NOAA was not involved in briefing Trump on the potential path of Hurricane Dorian, which may have led to the president perceiving a far greater threat to Alabama on Sept. 1 than there actually was, Jacobs said: "Moving forward from Dorian: What did I learn over the last week? From now on, the National Weather Service should be at the table with emergency managers and FEMA at all briefings. This is critically important if we are going to be analyzing the forecast outlook. We need somebody there who understands how to interpret it."

Jacobs took no questions, and he was ushered out of the room by security guards.

His speech comes a day after NWS Director Louis Uccellini broke ranks with NOAA leadership, issuing a strong defense of his employees, particularly those at the Birmingham forecast office, during a speech at the same conference.

"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."

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to the Commerce Department inspector general's office seeking an investigation into violations of NOAA's scientific integrity policy.

"I am deeply troubled that NOAA is politicizing weather prediction critical for the protection of life and property in contravention of internal operations services and policy directives," Shaheen wrote. She is the ranking Democratic member on the Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees NOAA's budget.

She wrote that the NOAA statement was "released . . . to defend the President's position, while ignoring the best available science."

The agency's scientific integrity policy includes a provision prohibiting "any NOAA official" from asking or directing other NOAA employees to "suppress or alter scientific findings," Shaheen's letter states.

On Sunday, acting NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean sent an email to colleagues announcing the opening of an investigation into whether the agency's Friday statement, as well as previous emails to NWS staff, violated the agency's scientific integrity policy. McLean said Friday's statement and other actions 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 in an email to NOAA employees that was obtained by The Post. "There followed, last Friday, an unsigned news 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."

In response to McLean's email, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said: "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."

Matt Lanza, a meteorologist who co-authors a Houston-based weather blog called Space City Weather, described a strong sense of solidarity among all of the forecasters present at the conference.

"Meteorologists are a small, tight-knit community, and so if you come after one of us, you come after all of us," Lanza said. "You know we all have differing beliefs, but when it comes to getting the science right, and getting the forecast right, there's no ambiguity there. It's gotta be right, and it's gotta be the best information at the time."

This article was written by Andrew Freedman, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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