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.
Dismay came from those who served under Republican and Democratic presidents alike as leaders in meteorology and disaster response sized up a sustained effort by Trump and his aides to justify his warning that Alabama, among other states, was “most likely” to be hit hard by Dorian, contrary to forecasts showing Alabama was clear.
That effort led NOAA to repudiate a tweet from the National Weather Service the previous weekend assuring Alabamans — accurately — that they had nothing to fear from the hurricane. The weather service is part of NOAA and the tweet came from its Birmingham, Alabama, office.
“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.”
Alabama had never been included in hurricane advisories and Trump’s information, based on less authoritative graphics than an official forecast, was outdated even at the time.
In the tempestuous aftermath, some meteorologists spoke on social media of protesting when the acting NOAA chief, Neil Jacobs, is scheduled to speak at a National Weather Association meeting Tuesday — in Huntsville, Alabama.
Former officials saw a political hand at work in NOAA’s statement disavowing the Birmingham tweet. The statement was issued by an anonymous “spokesperson,” a departure from the norm for federal agencies that employ people to speak for them by name.
“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.”
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.”
The White House declined to comment Saturday when asked if it had directed NOAA to release the statement. NOAA officials also didn’t respond to requests for comment. After spending the morning at his Virginia golf club, Trump tweeted that he’d like to move on from the matter but the news media “won’t leave it alone.”