Feb 2, 2020 - Politics & Policy

NOAA emails reveal internal alarm over Trump's claims about Hurricane Dorian

Trump gives an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 4.
President Trump gives an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian, Sept. 4. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials privately slammed an unsigned NOAA statement contradicting forecasters and backing President Trump's claims that Hurricane Dorian was threatening Alabama, documents released by the agency show.

Catch up quick: The National Weather Service's Birmingham office tweeted in early September that Dorian would have no impact on Alabama, contradicting tweets by the president. A few days later, NOAA released an unsigned statement asserting that there was a 20% chance of the storm hitting Alabama.

  • Craig McLean, then NOAA's acting chief scientist, said in an extraordinary letter that NOAA's "intervention to contradict" the Birmingham office's assertion on Dorian "was not based on science" and "simply put, political."

Driving the news: Documents containing over 1,000 emails were released Friday night in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Washington Post and BuzzFeed, shedding new light on the concerns felt by top NOAA officials about the agency's actions.

What they're saying: In one exchange, NOAA’s deputy chief of public affairs Scott Smullen wrote that it "looks like" someone at the White House "drew with a marker on the image of our official forecast," in reference to a video that appeared to show a sharpie drawn on an official map as Trump spoke about Alabama being at risk. In another email, NWS social media lead Corey Pieper said the image "was doctored."

Email
A screenshot of an exchange between National Weather Service social media lead Corey Pieper and Susan Buchanan, NWS director of public affairs, part of hundreds of emails released by NOAA.
What concerns me most is that this Administration is eroding the public trust in NOAA for an apparent political recovery from an ill timed and imprecise comment from the President."
— Excerpt from Craig McLean's email, dated Sept. 7

McLean wrote in an email, dated Sept. 7: "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."

  • In another email, Gary Shigenaka, a senior biologist at NOAA, asked the agency's acting director Neil Jacobs to "address this crisis in moral leadership." 
  • "You have no idea how hard I’m fighting to keep politics out of science," Jacobs replied.
  • Ret. Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, the No. 2 official at the agency, said in an email to Shigenaka dated Sept. 8: "[P]lease accept Neil’s reply as a sincere acknowledgment of a press release we did not approve or support. You know from my multiple messages to you and your colleagues that we respect and stand behind your service and scientific integrity."
  • Gallaudet wrote in another email to NWS chief operating officer John Murphy: "I’m having a hard time not departing the pattern right now."
  • Murphy told Gallaudet in his reply to "hang in there": "Need you and judgement we make nearly everyday," Murphy said. "Is this battle to die for or better to stay and fight for what’s right. ... we can do more in pattern."
  • Axios has contacted the White House and NOAA for comment about the release of the documents.

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