NOAA Disputes Its Own Experts, Siding With President Trump Over Hurricane Dorian and Alabama. Here's a Full Timeline of the Controversy
As Hurricane Dorian killed dozens of people in the Bahamas and encroached on the United States’ southeastern coastline, President Donald Trump has been criticized for unduly focusing on the storm’s potential impact on a state that was not expected to be largely impacted: Alabama.
The confusion began on the morning of Sept. 1, when the President tweeted that the state, as well as Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
About 20 minutes later, the National Weather Service’s (NWS) station in Birmingham, Ala., appeared to step in on Twitter to clear up the confusion about the storm’s effects on the state.
“Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” their tweet read. “We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
Almost a week later, the NWS’s parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also weighed in, disputing the earlier tweet and siding with the President. In an unsigned statement released Friday night, the NOAA disowned the Birmingham station’s tweeted forecast.
“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,” the statement said.
The head of the National Weather Service, meanwhile, on Monday publicly backed forecasters who denounced Trump’s assertion that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama, saying they “did what any office would do to protect the public.”
Although the NOAA’s statement may be welcomed by the President, who had vocally defended his initial tweet throughout the week, it did not impress many meteorological experts. Many experts, including a former NOAA chief operating officer and a former branch chief of NOAA’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, denounced the statement on social media.
Bill Read, a former head of the National Hurricane Center, wrote on Facebook that the statement was “so disappointing.”
“As I see it there are two possible drivers leading to the statement,” Read wrote. “Either NOAA Leadership truly agrees with what they posted or they were ordered to do it. If it is the former, the statement shows a lack of understanding of how to use probabilistic forecasts in conjunction with other forecast information. Embarrassing. If it is the latter, the statement shows a lack of courage on their part by not supporting the people in the field who are actually doing the work. Heartbreaking.”
Dan Sobien, the head of the labor union National Weather Service Employees Organization, which encompasses NWS, hurricane hunters and hurricane researchers, tells TIME that he’s seen on social media that many NWS employees feel “demoralized” by NOAA’s statement. Sobien said that he was concerned that he had never seen NOAA “undermine” its own forecasters, who are tasked with making life-or-death decisions. For years, the NWS has worked to ensure that people evacuate or take cover in extreme weather, and for official channels such as the news media to be “on the same page” about weather forecasts.
“It is absolutely necessary that the National Weather Service maintains its authority and people believe our warnings,” Sobien said. “And it’s absolutely necessary, once they hear our warnings, that they hear them over and over. Whatever it takes. Theres absolutely no reason, in 2019, that anybody has to die because of a hurricane, at least in the United States.”
As Hurricane Dorian raged over the last week, the President repeatedly issued tweets and other statements emphasizing his belief that forecasters had at least initially believed the storm would heavily impact Alabama. To get a sense of why NOAA decided to publish this statement, TIME traced this developing story from the day of the President’s first tweet.
Sunday, Sept. 1
On Sunday morning, the President tweeted that Alabama and other states will be “hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
The Birmingham NWS appeared to respond to the President 20 minutes later, tweeting that the hurricane will be “too far east” to impact Alabama.
That morning, Trump also repeated his claim that Alabama would be affected by the storm, telling reporters, “Alabama is going to get a piece of it, it looks like. But it can change its course again and it could go back more toward Florida.”
At a FEMA briefing an hour later, Trump said that the storm “may get a little piece of a great place: It’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately. It’s the size of — the storm that we’re talking about. So, for Alabama, just please be careful also.”
According to the Associated Press, the National Hurricane Center was reporting at this time that parts of Alabama only had a 5% to 10% chance of getting tropical storm level winds.
Monday, Sept. 2
On Monday, Katie Rogers of the New York Times wrote that these comments were part of Trump’s “reality-show approach to the presidency.”
“With his reality-show approach to the presidency, Mr. Trump has a habit of weighing in on the day’s most-covered news stories with his own running commentary. As Dorian approached, Mr. Trump switched into town-crier mode, updating the public on what he had learned — or, what he thought he’d learned — from government officials as Dorian threatened the coast of the state of Florida, where he has owned property for decades,” Rogers wrote.
Trump criticized journalists on Twitter for their reporting on his statement about Alabama.
“Such a phony hurricane report by lightweight reporter @jonkarl of @ABCWorldNews. I suggested yesterday at FEMA that, along with Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, even Alabama could possibly come into play, which WAS true,” Trump wrote. “They made a big deal about this when in fact, under certain original scenarios, it was in fact correct that Alabama could have received some ‘hurt.’ Always good to be prepared! But the Fake News is only interested in demeaning and belittling. Didn’t play my whole sentence or statement. Bad people!”
Wednesday, Sept. 4
Three days after his initial tweet, in a meeting in the Oval Office, Trump displayed a NOAA forecast map to demonstrate that Alabama was originally believed to have been threatened by Hurricane Dorian. The map appeared to have been crudely altered by hand, its forecast extended to show that the storm would impact Alabama.
Later, Trump tweeted a South Florida Water Management District map dated from Aug. 28 that showed that some projections showed that the hurricane could reach Alabama. The graphic notes that advisories from the National Hurricane Center should “supersede” the map.
The South Florida Water Management District later told CNN in a statement that it produces “hundreds” of such maps each day, and that they’re refreshed every 15 minutes with new data.
Thursday, Sept. 5
Philip Bump of the Washington Post wrote on Thursday that Trump’s response to the criticism was “Orwellian.”
“For Trump, this is a fight worth having because it does two things. It pits the media as oppositional by looping criticism of his initial inaccuracy and his flawed defenses as attacks on him and, by extension, on his supporters. It is also an example of Trump’s unwavering unwillingness to admit mistakes, a central component of his personal survival strategy.”
The White House released a statement from Rear Adm. Peter Brown, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, defending the President’s initial statement.
“The President’s comments were based on that morning’s Hurricane Dorian briefing, which included the possibility of tropical storm force winds in southeastern Alabama,” the statement read according to the Washington Post.
That day, Trump criticized the news media for reporting on his statements about the storm
“In the early days of the hurricane, when it was predicted that Dorian would go through Miami or West Palm Beach, even before it reached the Bahamas, certain models strongly suggested that Alabama & Georgia would be hit as it made its way through Florida & to the Gulf,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Instead it turned North and went up the coast, where it continues now. In the one model through Florida, the Great State of Alabama would have been hit or grazed. In the path it took, no. Read my FULL FEMA statement. What I said was accurate! All Fake News in order to demean!”
In another tweet, the President again criticized the media for reporting on his focus on Alabama.
“Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!”
Later that day, Trump tweeted NOAA maps from last Thursday and Friday. One of the maps identified that parts of Alabama had a 5 to 20% chance of receiving 39 mph winds; the other map said parts of Alabama had a 5 to 30% chance of 39 mph winds.
He also retweeted an Aug. 30 tweet from The Alabama National Guard, which said that the hurricane was “projected to reach southern Alabama by the early part of the week.”
The Guard’s account had then corrected that tweet the day after saying the forecast showed “more consistently” that the storm would track away from Alabama.
Friday, Sept. 6
On Friday, the President tweeted that the news media was “fixated” on what Trump had said about the storm.
“The Fake News Media was fixated on the fact that I properly said, at the beginnings of Hurricane Dorian, that in addition to Florida & other states, Alabama may also be grazed or hit. They went Crazy, hoping against hope that I made a mistake (which I didn’t). Check out maps…..”
He also tweeted an undated video clip that showed that CNN had acknowledged that the storm would hit Alabama.
CNN reported on Friday night that the clip had aired on Aug. 28 — four days before the President’s initial tweet about Hurrican Dorian hitting Alabama.
Reporters from various outlets commented on the President’s determination to prove himself right. Peter Baker and Sarah Mervosh of the New York Times wrote on Sept. 6 that the President seemed keen to “[wage] war over his forecasting skills.”
“Whatever merits there may have been to his original statement, he finds it impossible to back down or brush it off as imprecise wording. Where other presidents would have dropped the matter rather than give it air, Mr. Trump extended the story for nearly a week.”
Saturday, Sept. 7
In a pair of tweets on Saturday, President Trump criticized the Times‘ story for saying that they had misstated the hurricane’s trajectory. He noted that he had said “very early on” that the storm “may even hit” Alabama.
Monday, Sept. 9
On Monday, NWS Director Louis Uccellini publicly backed the Birmingham office’s Sept. 1 statement during a National Weather Association presentation, saying the office “did what any office would do to protect the public.”
According to Uccellini, the Birmingham office contradicted Trump’s tweet that Alabama would be hit much harder than anticipated to “stop public panic,” and “ensure public safety,”
“The integrity of the forecast process was maintained by the Birmingham office and across the entire National Weather Service,” added.