On Wednesday, it appears the White House attempted to retroactively justify a tweet that President Trump issued over the weekend in which he warned, erroneously, that Alabama would be affected by Hurricane Dorian.
In a White House video released Wednesday, Trump displays a modified National Hurricane Center “cone of uncertainty” forecast, dated from 11 a.m. on Aug. 29, indicating Alabama would in fact be affected. The graphic appears to have been altered with a Sharpie to indicate a risk the storm would move into Alabama from Florida.
“We had, actually, our original chart was that it was going to be hit — hitting Florida directly,” Trump said as he displayed the graphic from Aug. 29, which now includes an added appendage extending the cone into Alabama. “That was the original chart,” Trump said. “It could’ve, uh, was going towards the gulf,” Trump explained in the video.
Asked about the altered hurricane forecast chart at a White House event on opioids Wednesday afternoon, Trump said his briefings included a “95 percent chance probability” that Alabama would be hit. When asked whether the chart had been drawn on, Trump said: “I don’t know; I don’t know.”
White House deputy press secretary J. Hogan Gidley later confirmed that the drawing was made using a black Sharpie, while criticizing the media for focusing on it.
Trump’s tweet on Sunday came as Dorian was hitting the Bahamas as a high-end Category 5 hurricane, and the tweet sparked enough public alarm that it prompted the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., to bluntly tweet 20 minutes later: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
Photos posted on the White House’s Flickr site reveal that Trump did receive the correct briefing on Aug. 29 from acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Neil Jacobs, in which the National Hurricane Center’s forecast called for Dorian to hit Florida. Alabama was never included in any National Hurricane Center forecast cone for Dorian, though it was included for a time in a map on the probability of tropical storm conditions, but that showed a low likelihood of that outcome.
It is not clear whether Trump was responsible for altering the forecast chart, but the modified photo appeared to show Alabama in Dorian’s eventual line of fire. The original forecast by the National Hurricane Center can be seen here. The National Hurricane Center’s text bulletin at that time included Florida in its discussion five times, but it did not mention Alabama. Instead, the center urged caution from residents in “the Bahamas, Florida, and elsewhere in the southeastern United States.”
When Trump tweeted his original warning to Alabama, the concurrent National Hurricane Center forecast called for Dorian to pass off the Georgia coast, with the center of Dorian’s expected track passing 300 miles east of the Alabama border. The far western extent of the cone was located more than 150 miles east of the Alabama border.
NOAA did not immediately respond to a request for a statement about the altered forecast map, which has the agency’s official logo.
The White House did not reply requests for comment for this report.
In a Wednesday evening tweet, Trump defended his Alabama warning and use of the altered map by pointing to raw computer model data provided to state and local governments on Aug. 28, a day before his storm briefing with NOAA and four days before his Alabama tweet.
The data shows the majority of models called for Hurricane Dorian to make landfall well southeast of Alabama, most likely in Florida. By the time of his controversial tweet on Sunday, the projections on that map showing potential impacts on Alabama had long been ruled out. He doubled down on that defense on Thursday morning, retweeting the Aug. 28 model plot and stating: “Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!”
On Thursday, Trump continued to focus on the Alabama threat, pitting himself against the media as well as meteorologists. Trump tweeted a NOAA chart from August 29 that depicted the likelihood and timing that Alabama would see tropical storm force winds.
The map indicated only a five to 20 percent chance of such conditions in southeastern Alabama beginning on Monday. However, by the time of President Trump’s tweet on Sept. 1, those odds were down to a 5 percent chance of tropical storm conditions in a sliver of extreme southeastern Alabama on Tuesday night, far below Trump’s figure of 95 percent.
The White House released a statement Thursday afternoon that cites the possibility of tropical storm force winds in a portion of Alabama to justify Trump’s tweets and public statements on the topic.
Altering official government weather forecasts isn’t just a cause for concern — it’s illegal. Per 18 U.S. Code 2074, which addresses false weather reports: “Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather conditions falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the Government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both.”
That law applies to what is now known as NOAA’s National Weather Service, which contains the National Hurricane Center.