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Commerce Department aides knew Alabama hurricane forecasters were not responding to Trump, but still rebuked them

Dorian’s impressive cloud shield spans 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Maritimes. (NOAA/RAMMB)

Senior aides at the Commerce Department forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to publicly rebuke its weather forecasters in Birmingham, Ala., for contradicting President Trump’s comments about the threat Hurricane Dorian posed to that state, even after NOAA informed them that the agency’s meteorologists were not aware at the time they were contradicting the president, according to three officials familiar with the matter.

The NOAA officials spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity surrounding ongoing investigations into the agency’s actions regarding Hurricane Dorian. NOAA and its National Weather Service are part of the Commerce Department.

According to emails released via a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and other news organizations, Julie Kay Roberts, NOAA’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, was told on Sept. 2 about the motivation behind a tweet that the National Weather Service office in Birmingham had sent at 11:11 a.m. the day before. When forecasters there tweeted that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” they were responding to an influx of calls from worried residents and not to an earlier tweet from Trump.

Trump had wrongly tweeted at 10:51 a.m. the same day that Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” sparking confusion and fear in the state. Alabama was not in the so-called “cone of uncertainty” for Dorian at the time, or close to the zone most likely to be affected by its hazardous conditions.

“I wanted to let you know that the forecasters in Birmingham who made the clarification post for Alabama [were] unaware of the POTUS tweet when they made their post,” Susan Buchanan, director of public affairs for the National Weather Service, wrote to Weather Service and NOAA officials, including Roberts, in an email on Sept. 2.

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 11 that this was the case. However, Buchanan’s email brings to light that senior agency officials knew this four days before NOAA issued the controversial, unsigned statement critical of the forecasters for speaking “in absolute terms.”

The new emails also show that Chris Darden, the meteorologist in charge of the Birmingham office, had written in an email to Weather Service officials, including Buchanan, on Sept. 1: “Some in [the] media assumed, understandably so, that our social media posts were a direct response to the [White House] post. In fact, they were not as we were not even aware of them at the time. It was directly in response to the increase in calls from anxious and panicked citizens and core partners.”

As the political storm swirled during this period, between Sept. 2 and when NOAA sent out its statement on Sept. 6, the agency was dealing with the high-stakes work of forecasting the actual hurricane, which peaked at Category 5 intensity and devastated the northwestern Bahamas.

Roberts received an early-morning phone call on Sept. 6 from senior Commerce Department aides traveling with Secretary Wilbur Ross in Greece, directing her to put together a timeline of events involving the forecast for Hurricane Dorian and the risk it posed to Alabama and related agency communications on the matter, according to two of the NOAA officials. She and acting NOAA head Neil Jacobs were then involved in providing feedback to the Commerce Department regarding an unsigned statement the agency ultimately sent out the same day that was critical of the Alabama forecasters, as The Post previously reported.

Knowing that the forecasters had no political motivations, Jacobs and Roberts tried but failed to block the paragraph admonishing them, which originated from the Commerce Department.

“The Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work closely each and every day to serve the American people,” wrote a Commerce Department spokesperson in response to questions about the role its aides played in the statement.

The president’s false claim that Alabama would be hit by the storm, and the actions the Commerce Department took to force NOAA to issue a statement in support of such a claim, raised questions about political interference in a science agency whose mission is to protect public safety.

Senior political officials at the Commerce Department, including Michael Walsh Jr., chief of staff to Ross, Dave Dewhirst, deputy general counsel, and Earl Comstock, director of policy, orchestrated drafting the statement, The Post reported.

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had been “involved in high-level conversations” about the statement, through the Commerce Department officials, Jacobs told a House committee. As The Post has previously reported, Mulvaney was acting at the request of Trump.

Trump’s tweet that Alabama would be affected by the storm gained national attention when, during an Oval Office press availability, he 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.

Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, publicly defended the agency and the office at the center of a controversy surrounding a Trump tweet about the path of Hurricane Dorian. (Video: Reuters)

Emails show mounting frustration among Weather Service staff following the NOAA statement

The emails released as part of the Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that after the NOAA statement was released, officials at the Weather Service were left scrambling to deal with a public revolt and internal dissent, while simultaneously coming to grips with what had happened.

On Sept. 7, Buchanan sent an email to Roberts describing receiving “a lot of angry/hate mail and phone calls” in response to the statement. Benjamin Friedman, deputy undersecretary for NOAA operations, replied: “I am being targeted as well. This is a difficult time.”

Weather Service Deputy Director Mary Erickson forwarded a scathing public email from “Sherrie P” to Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini on Sept. 8. The email stated that Americans are “appropriately horrified” that NOAA was not standing by the Weather Service. The email concluded: “Please don’t allow that to be undermined by what is, in all likelihood, a temporary, but very dark time for America’s democracy.”

Uccellini replied: “Powerful statement.”

One email, sent by a NOAA employee to an agency public affairs official, shows how the statement was being received internally. “I’m reaching out just to help provide feedback from the agency. This statement is deeply upsetting to NOAA employees that have worked the hurricane and not fully accurate based on the timeline in question,” the staff member wrote.

Additional emails show Weather Service officials coordinating on how to boost morale within the agency by “making short appreciation calls to several centers and forecast offices.”

In response to the information released in the emails as part of the FOIA, NOAA spokesperson Scott Smullen said Thursday: “The documents speak for themselves and demonstrate a professional communications office handling media inquiries and normal agency operational email chatter, in addition to employee and public reaction to the issue.”

NOAA’s unsigned statement critical of the forecasters has generated at least three investigations, including one by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, one by the House Science Committee and another by NOAA’s chief scientist, who is looking into possible violations of the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

It began on Sept. 1 when President Trump warned that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow presents a timeline of events. (Video: The Washington Post)