In what was at times an emotional speech at a conference of meteorologists in Alabama on Tuesday, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defended National Weather Service forecasters who corrected President Trump’s warning that Hurricane Dorian posed a threat to the state.
“Weather should not be a partisan issue,” Neil Jacobs, NOAA’s acting administrator, said in his keynote address at the National Weather Association’s annual conference in Huntsville. “Thank you for the job that you do and the lives that you save.”
Jacobs did not criticize Trump or the administration, saying that the deadly storm was hard to predict and that “at one point, Alabama was in the mix.”
According to the Associated Press, Jacobs “appeared near tears at one point” in the speech, which was not publicly broadcast.
His remarks came a day after the director of the National Weather Service received a standing ovation at the same conference by backing forecasters in the Birmingham office for issuing a tweet that corrected the president’s claim that Alabama was one of the states that could be affected by Dorian. At the time Trump spoke, during a FEMA briefing, the storm was already turning north toward its eventual landfall at Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The president also tweeted that Alabama would be hit “(much) harder than anticipated.”
In the days that followed, Trump seemed fixated on defending his erroneous forecast, even producing an old map that appeared to have been altered with a marker to extend the storm’s path to include Alabama.
According to the New York Times, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross then threatened to fire Jacobs and other top officials at NOAA if the agency did not disavow the Birmingham office’s forecast. The agency released an unsigned statement on Friday saying Trump was right to say Alabama could be affected by Dorian despite forecast models showing the storm’s projected path had already turned northward and posed no threat to the state.
The Times reported that NOAA’s unusual reversal is now being examined by the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General. And in an email to NOAA employees, Craig McLean, the agency’s chief scientist, said he is investigating NOAA’s response to Trump’s forecast.
“It compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” McLean wrote in the email, which was published by the Washington Post. “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”
Jacobs told the crowd that NOAA’s statement failed to say that “we understand and fully support the good intent” of the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office in its attempt to “calm fears and support public safety.”
He assured attendees that “there is no pressure to change the way” they forecast storms, and that “nobody’s job is at risk: not mine, not yours.”
Jacobs added that the National Weather Service should “be at the table with FEMA” at all hurricane briefings.
“We need somebody who knows how to interpret forecasts,” he said.
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