HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both defended the administration on Tuesday and thanked a local weather office that contradicted President Donald Trump’s claims about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama.
Acting administrator Neil Jacobs told a meteorology group that a NOAA statement issued last Friday which criticized the Birmingham-area forecast office after it disagreed with 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.
The acting chief scientist at NOAA previously said the agency likely violated its scientific integrity rules when it publicly chastised the office in the unsigned statement, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked the inspector general to investigate.
Jacobs, a career meteorologist, appeared near tears at the lectern as he thanked the Birmingham office and mentioned Kevin Laws, a staff leader who was in the audience.
“This is hard for me,” said Jacobs, his voice choked.
Laws, science and operations officer with the weather service office in Birmingham, said he appreciated the remarks by Jacobs, whom he has known for 20 years.
“Absolutely no hard feelings,” Laws said.
Past NOAA administrators, a former National Weather Service chief and a former National Hurricane Center director – among others – have blasted the NOAA statement as inappropriate, saying they supported the chastised Alabama weather office.
Kathy Sullivan, who ran NOAA under former President Barack Obama, said Jacobs’ words won’t fix a “breach of trust” he created.
“A trust has been shattered and only actions can repair it. Trust is like glass: shatters in an instant, with a single blow, and takes a long time to restore,” she said in a statement.
The world’s largest general science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said weather forecasters should not be “asked to change a weather forecast in reaction to any political pressure.”
Retired Adm. David W. Titley, an assistant NOAA administrator during the Obama Administration and former meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that it seemed Jacobs was stuck between orders from the White House and Department of Commerce and a rebellion by some in the National Weather Service.
“For some reason he seems desperate to keep his job – and this results in the pathos we saw this morning,” Titley said in an email to The Associated Press. “Personally I think his situation is untenable; he should attempt to salvage what’s left of his self-respect. He either stands by the Friday p.m. statement or he does not – but he can’t have it both ways.”
Paul Schlatter, president of the 2,100-member National Weather Association, where Jacobs spoke, said he doesn’t envy Jacobs, who he described as a career “weather geek” caught in a tough position.
“It’s still a little frustrating the politics are still a part of this. We are here to forecast the weather. That’s our mission, that’s what we are paid to do,” said Schlatter, who works for the National Weather Service in Colorado.
Weather officials said Birmingham forecasters didn’t realize that rumors about Dorian threatening to hit the state began with a tweet by Trump, who apparently relied on information that was several days old when he sent the message. The office issued a tweet of its own saying Alabama wasn’t at risk.
Laws said Birmingham forecasters working in the agency’s suburban office Sept. 1 were having a quiet morning when the phones suddenly lit up.
“We got calls about people having surgery and should they cancel. We got calls about `Should I go get my elderly parents?’ There were so many concerns,” he said in an interview.
Forecasters didn’t know what had happened until reaction started on social media, where some accused the staff of purposely attempting to embarrass Trump, Laws said.
“The social media comments started rolling in and then we realized there was more to this than we first thought,” he said.
Jacobs said Dorian presented forecasters with a “particularly difficult” challenge and noted that, early on, the storm did show the possibility of doing something other than veering northward up the East Coast.
“At one point Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast,” he said.
While some forecasters had talked about walking out on Jacobs’ speech or staging some sort of protest, there was no demonstration and he received polite applause.
Laws declined to say exactly who sent the tweet that contradicted the president.
“It came from all of us,” he said.
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