In a Dangerous Move, NOAA Debases Itself in the Name of Trump's Bad Tweet

If only it had stopped at Sharpiegate.
Photo: AP

Against all odds, we have reached an even lower nadir in Donald Trump’s war on the hurricane forecast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency in charge of making sure every American has access to trusted, life-saving forecasts, sent out a Friday news dump press release undermining itself because the president can’t take an L.

The president obsessed with hyperbole sent an erroneous tweet this weekend warning Alabama was among the states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian. Look, we all make dumb tweets. And sometimes you just have to admit you made a dumb tweet and move on, doubly so if you’re the goddamn president of the United States and there’s a dangerous hurricane headed to the country you are in charge of.

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But that is not Donald Trump. So while a hurricane actively brought storm surge and punishing wind and rain ashore, the president went through the stages of Trumpiness. First, there were more bad tweets. Then there was a Sharpie-modified map in the Oval Office. Then more bad tweets. Then grifting. Then more bad tweets. And now we have arrived at making others swear fealty to his version of the truth.

NOAA put out a statement on Friday bravely (or perhaps kindly) attributed to a “spokesperson” backing up our big, wet president.

“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.

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First, let’s be clear. Alabama was never in the cone of probability. But there were low odds of tropical storm-force winds at various points in the forecast, and the timeline sneakily includes the three days before the president’s tweet warning Alabama, when a tiny, tiny sliver of the state had 20-30 percent odds of seeing tropical-storm-force winds.

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The agency’s forecast put out immediately before the president’s bad tweet, though, showed a small corner of Alabama had 5-10 percent odds. Neither that forecast—or any other forecast issued by the agency—showed Alabama at risk of hurricane-force winds, to say nothing of storm surge or heavy rain. In other words, impacts were not “likely” and if any were felt, they were not going to be “(much) harder than anticipated.” The part of NOAA’s statement backing him up is just bad sleight of hand.

The real problem is the next part throwing the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Birmingham office under the bus. NWS is a part of NOAA and the local offices are trusted sources of information. When the Birmingham office subtweeted the president, it was damn right to do so. If you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Alabama’s rock star meteorologist James Spann:

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Why have I gone through all the trouble to point this out? It’s not because it’s all easily disprovable, and I have nothing better to do on a Friday evening (seriously, I’m supposed to go to a concert in a few). It’s because it’s dangerous.

NOAA is the definitive source of weather information in the country. It makes models, launches satellites, and issues alerts for everything from floods to tornadoes to hurricanes. Private weather companies build on top of the work NOAA does and they do it for money. NOAA does all this for the public good. Here’s the NWS mission statement with emphasis added:

The National Weather Service (NWS) provides weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.

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And here’s the mission statement for the National Hurricane Center (which is also a part of NOAA)—again with emphasis added:

The NHC mission is to save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts, and analyses of hazardous tropical weather and by increasing understanding of these hazards. The NHC vision is to be America’s calm, clear, and trusted voice in the eye of the storm and, with its partners, enable communities to be safe from tropical weather threats.

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To fulfill these missions, they rely on the public’s trust. Without that trust, there’s nothing, and this statement muddies the waters all because a president who will be gone in (at most) 5 years refuses to accept that he messed up. I’m not saying this means people will never have faith in NOAA again, but it continues a dangerous slide towards undermining institutions under the Trump administration. And eventually, it means people could lose their property or worse.

In some parallel universe, things could be like Deadspin’s David Roth imagines: “Trump would be online claiming to be “very close friends” with Dorian, or offering to broker a deal with the hurricane to prevent it from Doing Hurt to the southeast.” There could be a president who deletes the tweet, takes a screenshot and says they were wrong, and moves onto actual shit that matters like getting aid to help with the growing humanitarian and ecological crisis in the Bahamas. The federal agency that has done a vital job forecasting the storm keeps doing what it’s doing free of distractions, tapping that wellspring of confidence it needs to do keep at it.

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But instead, here we are, litigating stale wrong tweets from nearly a week ago on a Friday night.

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