The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump warned Alabama about Dorian. So we sent someone to cover the ‘hurricane.’

The public beach in Dauphin Island on Saturday. (Avi Selk/The Washington Post)

MOBILE, Ala. — The city stands.

The grocery stores are fully stocked, the Home Depot has no lack of generators, tarps and plywood, and it’s business as usual at the Waffle Houses.

Boaters on the Mobile River have been urged to caution — only because a group of manatees were spotted frolicking nearby. The highway south runs past unsunk boats and unbroken masts all the way to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, where resort-town general stores report no panicked runs on supplies — not now and not a week ago, when Trump first claimed Alabama would likely be slammed by Hurricane Dorian.

“We had some little card things out — says how to be prepared. That’s about all we had,” a cashier at the Ship & Store on Dauphin Island said on a cloudless Saturday afternoon. “Do you need your receipt?”

But it’s always calmest in the center of a storm, sometimes even political ones. The rest of the United States is basically the eyewall: an ever-widening vortex of outrage and bureaucratic retaliations whirling around Trump’s false weather reports.

His first, in a Sept. 1 tweet, warned that Alabama was one of the states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the hurricane — which by then was swerving away from the state. The tweet caused Alabamians to call the National Weather Service en masse, which caused the agency’s Birmingham office to rebut Trump and late-night comedians to write jokes. This in turn caused the White House to double down — disseminating outdated or doctored weather forecasts in an attempt to prove Trump correct, culminating Friday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly chastised its own forecasters for telling Alabamians they were safe.

President Trump on Sept. 4 held up a map of Hurricane Dorian featuring an apparent Sharpie-drawn circle to falsely extend its projected path. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

And yet they were safe, and they knew it.

“None of us were really worried about it,” said Frankie Austin, 22, a heavy lifter at a marine supply company in Mobile. “I don’t really usually keep up with Trump’s thoughts, or his, you know, quotes he be tweeting. All we got was a 30 percent chance of rain, and the rest of the weekend was just sunny.”

On a residential street fronting Mobile Bay, the only apparent sign of damage Saturday was a fallen tree in front of Elizabeth Van Antwerp’s house. Sitting on her porch with her partner, she explained that termites felled it. There had been no sign of any storm on Bayfront Road.

“We didn’t even buy extra groceries,” Van Antwerp said. “It was gorgeous weather, absolutely beautiful.”

She has lived here since 2004, when Hurricane Ivan took half her neighbor’s roof off. The next year, Hurricane Katrina flooded Van Antwerp’s house from the front door to the back, and a subsequent storm washed away her fishing pier. So she knows a thing or two about Alabama weather.

“I would say the president is not a meteorologist, would be the nicest way to say it,” Van Antwerp said.

“That . . . idiot,” added her partner, Anthony Miller, with an expletive. “Pardon my French.”

Several sailing clubs flank the coast between Mobile and the beach towns on Alabama’s southernmost shores. Their memberships comprise a mix of Trump supporters and Trump loathers, and few of the sailors inside wished to be quoted in a newspaper about something as politically charged as a weather forecast.

“I wasn’t worried about it at all,” said a man inside Buccaneer Yacht Club. “I have the ability to, you know, look at the weather.”

“We were actually worried,” countered Noel Miller, 51, as he pulled up a seat at the bar. “We really appreciate that it was a concern.”

Miller used to have a Star Class two-man racing boat, until Hurricane Katrina washed it out into the bay. Now he has a Finn named Liberty, which he fretted over late last month as Dorian bore down on the continent.

“We were all making plans for our boats,” he said. “Anything can come into the Gulf at that point. I think [Trump] understated the seriousness of it.”

That said, the Liberty is fine.

To be fair to the president, he never said Dorian threatened Mobile County specifically, as opposed to any other part of Alabama. But a week into Trump’s false prediction, it’s impossible to discern exactly what he did have in mind.

He said Wednesday that Alabama initially faced a 95 percent chance of a direct hit. On Saturday, he claimed he never said any such thing. He said at one point that Dorian may get “a little piece” of Alabama and, on another occasion, showed off a hurricane forecast map that had been altered with a Sharpie to enclose the state’s southeastern corner — including towns about 100 miles inland, which are typically hurricane-free.

Historically, it is Mobile County and surrounding coastal areas that get the worst of Alabama’s storms. Dauphin Island, connected to the mainland by a disconcertingly long bridge, was hit so hard by Hurricane Georges in 1998 that entire houses went skidding across the sand like errant beach umbrellas.

On Saturday, the Dauphin Island public beach and all its houses lay safe beneath the sun. Offshore oil rigs sat unmolested along a blue horizon, and tourists splashed in the Gulf while Dorian terrorized distant latitudes, after leaving wreckage in the Carolinas and devastation in the Bahamas.

Michael Watts Jr. had been planning a family trip to the island for weeks for his 33rd birthday. He ended up leaving his 3-year-old daughter at home in Atlanta, he said, because of Trump’s insistence on a chance of hurricane.

“After that I found out the Weather Channel said there’s not going to be anything out here,” Watts said as he and his fiancee walked back from a stretch of immaculate sand. “I was p-----. [My daughter] would have loved to see this.”

“He is chief of command, so you have to obey him,” Watts reflected on the White House weatherman. “But to hell with it. He doesn’t pay my bills.”

NOAA staff warned in Sept. 1 directive against contradicting Trump

Tracking Hurricane Dorian