Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Inspector: Alabama weather office wrongly admonished for tweet in ‘Sharpiegat­e’


Political pressure from the White House and a series of “crazy in the middle of the night” texts, emails and phone calls caused top federal weather officials to wrongly admonish a weather office for a tweet that contradict­ed President Donald Trump about Hurricane Dorian in 2019, an inspector general report found.

Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson concluded in a report issued Thursday that the statement chastising the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, could undercut public trust in weather warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion and for a short time even hindered public safety. Agency officials downplayed and disputed the findings.

“Instead of focusing on NOAA’s successful hurricane forecast, the department unnecessar­ily rebuked NWS forecaster­s for issuing a public safety message about Hurricane Dorian in response to public inquiries — that is, for doing their jobs,” the report concluded.

Former Obama NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, a scientist at Oregon State University, said in an email that high-level officials “put politics and their own jobs above public safety. In my view, this is shameful, irresponsi­ble and unethical.”

At issue was a Sept. 1 tweet from the Birmingham weather office that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

The tweet came out 10 minutes after Trump had tweeted that Alabama was among states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipate­d.” Forecaster­s in Alabama said they didn’t know about the president’s tweet, which was based on outdated informatio­n, and that they were instead responding to calls from a worried public.

By the time the two tweets were posted, Alabama was no longer in the hurricane center’s warning cone, although it had been in previous days. One hurricane center graphic at the time showed a “non-zero” chance of tropical storm force winds for a tiny corner of Alabama, something NOAA officials later scurried to highlight, according to the report.

However, NOAA acting chief Neil Jacobs told the inspector general’s office that he was baffled by Trump’s reference to Alabama: “That was the first time when I was wondering why are we still talking about Alabama, you know?”

The dust-up came to be referred to as “Sharpiegat­e” after the president later displayed a National Hurricane Center warning map that had been altered with a black marker to include Alabama in the potential path of the storm. The president is known for his use of Sharpies.

Four days after the tweets, then acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross an email after 9 p.m., saying “it appears as if the NWS intentiona­lly contradict­ed the president. And we need to know why. He wants either a correction or an explanatio­n or both.”

That triggered a series of texts, emails and phone calls involving Ross underlings, especially Department of Commerce Chief of Staff Michael J. Walsh Jr. from 1 a.m. to 3:43 a.m., laying the groundwork for an NOAA statement that came out the next day.

Then-NOAA communicat­ions chief Julie Kay Roberts told the inspector general’s office that Walsh told her “there are jobs on the line. It could be the forecast office in Birmingham. Or it could be someone higher than that. And the higher is less palatable.”

Walsh denied that to the inspector general. The report said there was no credible evidence found to say that jobs were threatened. However, Jacobs told the inspector general’s office he “definitely felt like our jobs were on the line” but that “nobody told me I was going to get fired.”

The eventual unsigned statement from NOAA said: “The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsiste­nt with probabilit­ies from the best forecast products available at the time.”

Dorian made landfall in North Carolina and had no major impact on Alabama, which is about 600 miles away.

 ?? AP FILE PHOTO ?? President Donald Trump holds a map as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.
AP FILE PHOTO President Donald Trump holds a map as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.

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