By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Senior NOAA political staff objected to orders to “fix” weather forecasts to conform with the president’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would impact Alabama, the New York Times reports. Then Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire them.
This is the first evidence that the Commerce Department (and possibly the White House) put pressure on NOAA to repudiate and silence its scientists. The message from Secretary Ross is clear: protect the president’s whims at all costs, public safety be damned.
The fiasco began when the president erroneously tweeted that Alabama would be hit by the hurricane. After NWS Birmingham began to get panicked phone calls, they tweeted a clarification that Alabama would not be impacted (at the time, they didn’t even know about the president’s tweet). NOAA on Friday disavowed the Birmingham office tweet and was heavily criticized for doing so. Then, news broke that NWS scientists were warned not to speak publicly about the hurricane’s path for fear of upsetting the president.
Senior NOAA scientists show support
Over the past 48 hours, as news continued to break about political attacks on the independence of NOAA and the National Weather Service, senior career civil servants pledged support for their colleagues.
Late last night, NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean sent a message to NWS staff that called the NOAA response “political” in nature. “The content of this press release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” he wrote. “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”
This morning, at a speech at a national weather conference in (of all places) Alabama, NWS Director Louis Uccellini praised his staff’s response to a concerned public. “They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” he said. His remarks received a standing ovation from the weather experts in the audience.
We need to know who was behind this
NOAA is being forced to contradict and muzzle its own experts because nobody can get the president to admit that he made a mistake. It’s time to ask whether Secretary Ross should leave his position. He unnecessarily politicized the Census because of a presidential obsession, and now he’s trying to do the same with hurricane prediction.
And if the orders came directly from the White House, well, we should know that too, so that they can be held accountable. Emergency managers, mayors, governors, business owners, and so many other people depend on unfiltered access to NOAA and NWS data and expertise. Lives depend on getting it right.