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New emails show how President Trump roiled NOAA during Hurricane Dorian

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/1/2020 Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow
Hurricane Dorian near peak intensity on Sept. 1, 2019. (NOAA/RAMMB) Hurricane Dorian near peak intensity on Sept. 1, 2019. (NOAA/RAMMB)

A trove of documents released on Friday evening provides the clearest glimpse yet into how President Trump’s inaccurate statements, altered forecast map and tweets regarding Hurricane Dorian’s forecast path rattled top officials along with rank and file scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in September.

The documents, released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Washington Post and other media outlets, show that the No. 2 official at the agency, Ret. Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, claimed that neither he nor acting administrator Neil Jacobs approved a controversial unsigned statement that a NOAA spokesperson issued on Sept. 6. That statement criticized the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham for a tweet that contradicted Trump’s inaccurate assertion from Sept. 1, in which the president claimed that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” from the Category 5 storm.

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The statement was widely interpreted within NOAA’s National Weather Service as contradicting an accurate forecast because of political pressure from the White House and the Department of Commerce.

“[P]lease accept Neil’s reply as a sincere acknowledgment of a press release we did not approve or support,” Gallaudet wrote in an email to Gary Shigenaka, a NOAA marine biologist, on Sept. 8 at 5:48 a.m. “You know from my multiple messages to you and your colleagues that we respect and stand behind your service and scientific integrity.”

Other emails show some of the process of approving the statement and its dissemination, which involved then deputy chief of staff and communications director Julie Roberts. However, it’s not clear from the emails who directed NOAA to issue it. Roberts has since departed the agency, as has then-NOAA chief of staff Stuart Levenbach.

Jacobs also wrote to Shigenaka, stating, “This whole thing is being blown way out of proportion and politicized. The so-called tweet said absolutely no chance of impacts and NHC guidance was calling for 5-30%. The forecast office did the right thing to calm the nerves of citizens. I love NOAA. I am so proud of everything you all do.”

“You have no idea how hard I’m fighting to keep politics out of science. We are an objective science agency, and we won’t and never will base any decisions on anything other than science,” Jacobs wrote.

The Post has reported that the demand for NOAA to issue the statement came from White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, at the request of the president, via officials at the Commerce Department. Some communications that would shed light on the origins of the statement are redacted in the FOIA release because of an ongoing Commerce Department Inspector General investigation into the matter.

In another series of emails, Gallaudet expresses his concern for the NWS workforce, and seems to reference resigning over the matter.

In a message to John Murphy, the chief operating officer of the NWS, Gallaudet says: “Thank you John. I track all of NWS on social media, so I see the emotion, but honestly get it. I’m having a hard time not departing the pattern right now.”

Murphy, who served in the Air Force, replies: “Hang in there sir. Need you and judgement we make nearly everyday since we have pension. Is this battle to die for or better to stay and fight for what’s right,” adding, “we can do more in pattern.”

a screenshot of a social media post

The House Science Committee is also investigating the political pressure brought to bear on one of the world’s top oceans and atmospheric science agencies, and an internal NOAA inquiry is seeking to determine whether the agency’s scientific integrity policy — which explicitly prohibits political interference with scientific findings and the communication of those findings — was violated.

At stake is public trust in weather forecasts and warnings aimed at saving lives and protecting property. The emails show a concern among the agency’s leaders that its forecasters would hesitate to issue a storm warning or other forecast “product” because of fears that it would contradict or anger a political official, such as the president.

“Employees now fear for there [sic] jobs and are questioning whether they should post potentially life-saving info or check tweets first,” Murphy wrote to Jacobs in an email at 2 a.m. on Sept. 8. “This is not good and I will reassure employees to focus on mission as I have been doing. I really hope folks can find way to let this go and our employees do not hesitate for even one second.”

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The emails also show the moments when the controversy that became known as “Sharpiegate” first came to NOAA’s attention. In response to an email inquiry from The Post on Sept. 4, shortly after Trump displayed the altered forecast map in the Oval Office, NOAA’s deputy chief of public affairs Scott Smullen wrote colleagues:

“How do you want to handle this one? Looks like someone at the WH [White House] drew with a marker on the image of our official forecast.”

In a separate email discussion, Corey Pieper, social media lead at the NWS, alerted the public affairs office that the forecast image was “doctored.” Susan Buchanan, the director of the office, replied: “Are you sure they were doctored?” Pieper responded: “Yes, that was doctored.”

The Washington Post would later report it was Trump who altered the image with a black Sharpie.

With media inquiries pouring into the National Hurricane Center in Miami, public affairs officer Dennis Feltgen sent an urgent message to colleagues in Washington later that day. “HELP!!!”

NOAA’s Roberts expressed the hope the controversy would fade. “I pray this thing dies off by morning,” she wrote to colleagues.

But the release of the unsigned statement two days later only intensified the controversy, provoking a torrent of outrage from the public, Feltgen emailed again. “I am hopeful there was some consideration of the result ugly reaction to this press release. I am sick to my stomach.”

Louis Uccellini, director of the NWS, wrote “the mood out there is pretty ugly” in an email to NOAA leadership while referring to an “upwelling” in the weather community.

In response to the statement, Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, wrote to Weather Service and NOAA leaders, stating: “What’s next? Climate science is a hoax? Flabbergasted to leave our forecasters hanging in the political wind.”

a close up of a flower

In an email to NOAA leadership the next day, McLean wrote: “For an agency founded upon and recognized for determining scientific truths, trusted by the public, and responsible in law to put forward important science information, I find it unconscionable that an anonymous voice inside of NOAA would be found to castigate a dutiful, correct, and loyal NWS Forecaster who spoke the truth.”

McLean, a veteran NOAA official, would subsequently go public with his criticism and launch the scientific integrity investigation.

The backstory

At the time of Trump’s tweet, the NWS’s forecast guidance showed only a very small risk (about 5 percent) of tropical-storm-force winds for a small portion of Alabama. However, Alabama was not in the storm forecast track, or “cone of uncertainty,” from the National Hurricane Center, which showed Hurricane Dorian skirting the East Coast far away from Alabama.

While the NWS’s Birmingham office set the record straight, stating Alabama “would NOT see any impacts” from the storm, and even though top NOAA officials knew its forecasters only acted in response to calls from concerned residents, the agency still admonished the Birmingham division for speaking “in absolute terms.”

Trump’s tweet that Alabama would be affected by the storm gained national attention when Trump presented the version of the forecast cone from Aug. 29, extended into Alabama — modified using a Sharpie. The crudely altered map appeared to represent an effort to retroactively justify the original Alabama tweet.

The results of the Commerce Department Inspector General’s investigation are expected in the near future. Meanwhile, in December, Trump nominated Jacobs to head NOAA after the previous nominee, Barry Myers, withdrew from contention, and the Dorian matter is sure to come up at any nomination hearing.

a man sitting at a desk in front of a book: President Trump holds a chart, modified to highlight Alabama, as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4. © Evan Vucci/AP President Trump holds a chart, modified to highlight Alabama, as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4.

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