The Slatest

NOAA Staff Reportedly Warned Not to Contradict Trump on Claim Dorian Could Affect Alabama

President Donald Trump shows reporters a map of a predicted path of Hurricane Dorian following a briefing from officials in the Oval Office at the White House September 4, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It seems the staffers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent much of last week under a virtual gag order. A top NOAA official warned staffers against contradicting the president, reports the Washington Post. Without actually naming Trump, a nationwide directive was sent to NOAA personnel on Sept. 1 ordering that everyone “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.” The directive came mere hours after Trump claimed that Alabama was among the states that “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” so there was little doubt internally that it was referring to the president.

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Before the directive went out, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office had sent out a tweet contradicting Trump, writing that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

The directive shocked NOAA staff. “This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” a meteorologist told the Post. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring—ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do.”

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The revelation of the directive within NOAA came as former top officials of the agency, and the weather community at large, expressed anger at the Friday statement backing Trump. The former officials said the way the NOAA supported Trump and assailed the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office puts the credibility of the agency at risk. “We don’t want to get to 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,” Elbert “Joe” Friday, a former director of the National Weather Service, said. Jane Lubchenco, who served as NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, said that it “looks like classic politically motivated obfuscation to justify inaccurate statements made by the boss.”

David Titley, an atmospheric scientist who served as the chief operating officer of NOAA under Obama, also expressed his anger: “Perhaps the darkest day ever for leadership. Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice.” Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said he was shocked by the turn of events, noting that “never ever before has their management thrown them under the bus like this.”

In Gizmodo, Brian Kahn explains why the NOAA statement is dangerous:

NOAA is the definitive source of weather information in the country. It makes models, launches satellites, and issues alerts for everything from floods to tornadoes to hurricanes. Private weather companies build on top of the work NOAA does and they do it for money. NOAA does all this for the public good. …

To fulfill these missions, they rely on the public’s trust. Without that trust, there’s nothing, and this statement muddies the waters all because a president who will be gone in (at most) 5 years refuses to accept that he messed up. I’m not saying this means people will never have faith in NOAA again, but it continues a dangerous slide towards undermining institutions under the Trump administration. And eventually, it means people could lose their property or worse.