It is also the case, though, that the agency is part of the government led by President Trump.
Late on Friday afternoon, NOAA’s communications team — not its scientists — released a deliberately worded statement addressing the ongoing controversy over a tweet Trump sent Sunday morning.
You are probably familiar with that tweet. It’s this one:
At the time, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office quickly made clear that there was no significant threat to Alabama. Hurricane Dorian was already expected to shift northward, taking its destructive winds to states on the southeastern coast of the United States.
You can probably see the problem here: The NWS’s statement conflicts directly with Trump’s. When ABC News pointed that out, Trump was incensed, tweeting Tuesday an excoriation of the network and then spending the next three days sporadically insisting his tweet was correct. After personally altering a NOAA map of Dorian’s projected path during a meeting with reporters Wednesday, Trump on Thursday shifted his assertions to claim that he had been talking only about wind speeds.
It was that claim that the NOAA’s late-Friday statement addressed.
“From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” the statement read. It linked to the organization’s collection of projected wind-speed maps.
It then threw the NWS under the bus, saying the “Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
The word “probabilities” is important here. The image below is taken from the collection suggested in the anonymous NOAA spokesman’s statement. It was the most up-to-date wind-speed map available at the time of Trump’s Sunday tweet.
You’ll notice that there is, indeed, some overlap between the green part of the chart and the state of Alabama. If you look closely, though, you’ll further notice what that green bar indicates: a 5 to 10 percent chance of tropical-storm-force winds, not hurricane ones. Tropical-storm-force winds are slower and less dangerous than hurricane-force winds; at 40 miles an hour, the lowest end, winds might be enough to snap branches off trees.
What’s more, this map was a five-day projection. The three-day projection looked like this:
Three-day projections are more accurate, since they don’t look as far forward. As you can see, there was no projected overlap with Alabama three days out.
Admittedly speaking with some subjectivity, a 1-in-10 chance (at the upper end!) of a strong breeze affecting the southeastern corner of the state within the next five days does not seem as though it warrants being described as Alabama being “most likely … hit (much) harder than anticipated” from “one of the largest hurricanes ever.”
Notice how carefully worded the NOAA statement is. It notes that its data “demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” a phrasing that is both accurate and almost certainly intentionally deceptive. Yes, tropical-storm-force winds could impact Alabama, as they could a number of other states. And, yes, the NWS tweet said there would be no impacts from Dorian — failing to warn Alabamians that in less than a week, there were the same odds of a breeze stiff enough to snap some tree branches as there were of randomly guessing a number between one and 10.
It’s important to note that it is not the media that continues to rehash this issue. It was effectively dormant until Trump marked up that NOAA map Wednesday; it was fading Friday until the NOAA’s statement.
But that statement is an important development, one that should not be underestimated. It is an ostensibly scientific organization — one that prides itself on providing accurate, validated information to the public — releasing a statement obviously meant to bolster Trump’s defense of his tweet. It is a slightly more sophisticated version of Trump’s marker map, taking a product generated through deliberate scientific processes and presenting it misleadingly to save face.
There’s an important difference here, though: It seems pretty obvious that Trump or someone at the White House enticed an objective organization to make that change itself.
We’ve been over the psychology and the politics of Trump’s focus on Alabama already this week, but this development is something different. It’s not just Trump who’s trying to mislead the country. It’s an organization whose mission is specifically the opposite of that doing so. It’s an organization created to offer unvarnished information to the public offering information that’s something less than that — for no other obvious reason than pleasing the president.
And that elevates this entire, goofy debate to something else entirely.