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As a busy hurricane season looms, NOAA’s credibility has taken a hit, new emails show

Hurricane Dorian spinning over the northern Bahamas on Sept. 1. (Colorado State University)

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is getting underway with the country’s weather forecast agency in an unfamiliar situation. Facing what it expects to be an unusually active season, with between 13 to 19 named storms, forecasters at the National Weather Service will have to contend with lingering questions about their ability to operate independently after political interference from the White House during 2019′s Hurricane Dorian.

Monday brought the release of hundreds of emails that The Washington Post and other media outlets had requested from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NWS’s parent agency, under the Freedom of Information Act. The records request is related to President Trump’s erroneous tweet about the hurricane and efforts to retroactively justify it. This latest release, the seventh since the dust-up shined a spotlight on the politicization of weather forecasts, shows concerned citizens and NOAA constituents writing scathing emails of concern to the agency’s leaders in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane’s assault on the Bahamas and the southeastern United States.

New NOAA Hurricane Dorian emails show how tenuous scientific credibility is in the Trump era

Many of the emails excoriate NOAA’s leaders for issuing an unsigned statement Sept. 6, which backed up an inaccurate assertion from President Trump days earlier that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the Category 5 storm.

That statement criticized the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham for a tweet that contradicted Trump’s claims by definitively stating that the storm posed no threat to the state. By issuing that tweet, meteorologists in Birmingham were responding to a flood of calls from residents expressing concern about the storm. It was only later that they found out the source of the fears stemmed from a tweet from the president.

The NOAA statement was widely interpreted within its National Weather Service as contradicting an accurate forecast because of political pressure from the White House and the Commerce Department. The Post has reported that the demand for NOAA to issue the statement came from then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, at the request of the president, via officials at the Commerce Department.

A rare confluence of events is combining to make the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season more fraught for the previously uncontroversial oceans and atmosphere agency, and to put more pressure on its scientists to make accurate forecasts and communicate them clearly.

The 2020 hurricane season comes in the wake of what came to be known as “Sharpiegate,” due to Trump’s modification of a NOAA weather map to show Hurricane Dorian traveling in the direction of Alabama. But it also comes amid a pandemic, which complicates both NOAA’s own operations and storm response efforts by emergency managers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with which NOAA works closely.

Based on the emails, sent within a few days of the Sept. 6 NOAA statement on Hurricane Dorian, some coastal residents state that they are less likely to trust NOAA’s hurricane forecasts in the wake of Dorian.

One email from a member of the public, addressed to acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs and then-deputy chief of staff Julie Roberts, states, “Going forward, I will have less faith in NOAA’s forecasts, because I won’t know how they might have been tainted by politics.”

“Mostly, I will have to question whether there has been micromanagement of NOAA’s forecasts by the president,” the letter states.

Another email from a member of the public, this time sent to Jacobs, contains the question: “How can I trust anything coming from NOAA anymore?”

New emails show how President Trump roiled NOAA during Hurricane Dorian

Many of the emails released Monday are laced with profanity, showing the vitriol directed at NOAA leadership following the Sept. 6 statement, which was not signed by any official.

The emails show that on Sept. 7, retired Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, the No. 2 official at the agency, was told that other communications channels, including personal phone and email accounts as well as phone lines at weather forecast offices, were being targeted with “a lot of angry/hate mail and phone calls.”

Mary Erickson, NWS deputy director, raised the concern that communications with emergency management officials could be disrupted, noting some agency leaders “had to turn off their cellphones due to the large volume of calls.”

Even officials not involved in weather forecasting saw blowback from NOAA’s Dorian statement. David Herring, who works on NOAA’s climate programs, wrote to ask for guidance on how to respond to “very angry comments” sent by visitors to the website and social media channels.

Self-censorship concerns

Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said there are questions regarding how the public will trust NOAA hurricane forecasts this season, and also how willing agency scientists will be to speak up internally if a forecast might contradict a political position, as occurred with the NWS Birmingham office last year.

“I think that given everything that happened with 'Sharpiegate,’ there are questions about whether the agency will be trusted … and this is a time that we really need people to take seriously NOAA recommendations,” Goldman said.

“My bigger concern is that NOAA employees are going to be more hesitant” to speak out, Goldman said, since many may still be “feeling the burn of the betrayal of the Birmingham office.”

With the forecast for an active season, climate change impacts that make rapid storm intensification and heavy rainfall more likely, and an ongoing pandemic and its economic ramifications, this is not going to be a typical hurricane season, Goldman says. “It just seems like we’re potentially in for a perfect storm where the communication out of NOAA is going to be more important than ever, and we need them at full force,” she said.

NOAA spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the Weather Service is ready for the active season, noting it has already dealt with two named storms.

“The public and our partners in the emergency management community should continue to rely on the forecasts issued from across the National Weather Service, including the National Hurricane Center, just as they have over the agency’s 150-year history,” Vaccaro said. “With two named storms already, and possibly a third storm forming soon, this year’s hurricane season is likely to be busy and the National Weather Service stands ready for what is ahead while continuing to monitor the range of other weather hazards across the country.”

Awaiting results from investigations

The fallout over Sharpiegate has led to investigations into possible violations of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, as well as an inquiry from the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s Office, which is expected to be released in the near future. In addition, the House Science Committee has been probing the actions of NOAA’s leaders, and there have been shake-ups in NOAA’s upper ranks, with Jacobs’s chief of staff and Roberts, who also held the title of communications director, both departing suddenly for other positions within the administration.

NOAA has consistently ranked higher than other federal science agencies when it comes to its protection of agency scientists and their rights to share scientific results without worrying about political retribution.

NOAA backs Trump on Alabama hurricane forecast, rebukes Weather Service for accurately contradicting him

In a 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, UCS found that a majority of agency scientists agreed or strongly agreed that the agency adheres to its scientific integrity policy.

NOAA researchers scored their agency significantly higher on this question when compared with other agencies surveyed, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and energy-related agencies. The survey, however, was sent before Hurricane Dorian and the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen political interference with health-related agencies, principally the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.