WASHINGTON — Former top officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are assailing the agency for undermining its weather forecasters as it defends President Donald Trump’s statement from days ago that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama.
They say NOAA’s action risks the credibility of the nation’s weather and science agency and may even risk lives.
The critics served both Republican and Democratic presidents. Among them are former NOAA leaders and a former disaster response chief.
“This rewriting history to satisfy an ego diminishes NOAA,” Elbert “Joe” Friday, former Republican-appointed director of the National Weather Service, said on Facebook. He told The Associated Press on Saturday: “We don’t want to get the point where science is determined by politics rather than science and facts. And I’m afraid this is an example where this is beginning to occur.”
The previous evening, a NOAA statement from an anonymous spokesperson lent support to Trump’s warning days earlier that Alabama faced danger from Dorian. Alabama had never been included in official hurricane advisories and his information was outdated.
The statement undermined a tweet by the weather service’s office in Birmingham, Alabama, that had said Alabama would see no impact from Dorian.
Former officials saw a political hand at work. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday as to whether it had communication with NOAA before the agency released its statement Friday. NOAA officials also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“This falls into such uncharted territory,” said W. Craig Fugate, who was Florida emergency management chief under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Democratic President Barack Obama. “You have science organizations putting out statements against their own offices. For the life of me I don’t think I would have ever faced this under President Obama or Governor Bush.”
Fugate said this damages the National Weather Service and it is hard to say how much it will hurt hurricane preparedness and response.
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator during the Obama administration said: “It is truly sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, life-saving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servants. Scientific integrity at a science agency matters.”
Retired Adm. David Titley, former NOAA operations chief and a former meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University said NOAA’s leadership is showing “moral cowardice” and said officials should have resigned instead of issuing the statement chastising the Birmingham office. Friday said he would have quit had he been in top officials’ shoes.
Titley said Saturday it was dangerous because of the mistrust NOAA is now injecting in forecasts that can help people with life-or-death decisions on whether to evacuate.
“For people who look for excuses not to take action when their lives or property are threatened. … I think this can potentially feed that,” Titley said.
Former National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read on Friday also blasted NOAA on Facebook, saying he was speaking because government employees were too afraid for their jobs to speak.
Last Sunday, Trump tweeted: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5.”
The weather service in Birmingham quickly followed up with a tweet, which one meteorologist there said was prompted by residents’ concerns about what to do. It said: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro verified that day that “The current forecast path of Dorian does not include Alabama.”
The agency changed course in its latest statement, saying under no one’s name that the Birmingham tweet from its forecasters “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Contrary to Trump’s tweet, it was never “most likely” that Alabama would be hit hard. The highest percentage that tropical force storm winds — not stronger hurricane-force winds — would hit somewhere in Alabama was 11%, according to hurricane center charts and briefly somewhere between 20% and 30% according to a graphic that was not a forecast.