NOAA chief speaks to meteorologists in Alabama amid outcry

The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tried to walk a fine line as he spoke about the controversy over President Donald Trump’s claims about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama. NOAA acting administrator Neil Jacobs addressed the issue at a closed-door meeting for National Weather Association employees in Huntsville, Alabama on Tuesday.

Jacobs told the meteorology group that a NOAA statement Friday criticizing Birmingham’s local forecast office for contradicting Mr. Trump was meant to clarify “technical aspects” about Dorian’s potential impact.

“What it did not say, however, was that we understood and fully support the good intent of the weather office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety,” said Jacobs, a career meteorologist. “I am proud of the outstanding work performed by all of the weather forecast offices, including Birmingham, during the span of the storm, not to mention Charleston and Wilmington.”

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He added, “I’ll do everything I can to support you and your critical mission to protect life and property of the American people.”

Jacobs appeared near tears at one point as he spoke, the Associated Press reported.

NOAA has come under intense criticism for its statement Friday chastising the Birmingham meteorologists who contradicted Mr. Trump’s tweet. NOAA’s own chief scientist said Monday he’s looking into agency’s statement as a potential violation of scientific integrity guidelines.

President Donald Trump shows an outdated NOAA forecast map, marked with black pen to include Alabama, during a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019. Evan Vucci / AP

The controversy first erupted on Sunday, September 1, when Mr. Trump tweeted that Alabama could be impacted by Hurricane Dorian. “In addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” he wrote.

The Birmingham office of the National Weather Service disputed that just minutes later, tweeting: “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.”

After President Trump dug in on his insistence that Alabama had been at risk, displaying a map in the Oval Office with a line drawn in to include the state, NOAA issued a statement backing him up — contradicting the agency’s own meteorologists.

“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 National Weather Service Employees Organization pushed back, calling NOAA’s statement “utterly disgusting and disingenuous.” And in a letter emailed to colleagues Monday, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, Craig McLean, called the agency’s statement “political” and a potential violation of scientific integrity rules.

McLean said the agency’s statement “inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster” for political, not scientific, reasons. That, he wrote, 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.”

On Tuesday, Jacobs sought to calm fears among National Weather Association employees. There were no demonstrations or protests during Jacobs’s speech and he received polite applause.

Kevin Laws, the science and operations officer who leads the weather service office in Birmingham, said he appreciated the remarks by Jacobs, who he has known for 20 years.

“Absolutely no hard feelings,” Laws said.

Jacobs’ remarks came a day after National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said forecasters in Birmingham did the right thing with their effort to correct the record and reassure the people of Alabama.

“They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” said Uccellini, who prompted a standing ovation by asking members of the Birmingham weather staff to stand.

-The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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