Internal NOAA emails detail blowback to Trump hurricane claims: 'This has really gotten out of hand'

"These are getting very personal," a top NOAA official said of an angry email he received.
Image: UPresident Donald Trump holds an early projection map of Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.
President Donald Trump holds an early projection map of Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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By Allan Smith

Internal emails at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released Thursday showed how the agency scrambled to respond to President Donald Trump's inaccurate claims about Hurricane Dorian and Alabama.

The emails, dozens of which were obtained by NBC News in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, also detailed the blowback the NOAA received from both inside and outside the agency over a statement it put out bolstering Trump's claims over prior information from its own forecasters.

"These are getting very personal," Benjamin Friedman, the NOAA's deputy undersecretary for operations, emailed to two colleagues in response to an angry message he received in light of the agency's Sept. 6 statement.

The emails, which spanned a week in early September, took place as the president made and defended claims that Hurricane Dorian was likely to hit Alabama on Sept. 1 "(much) harder than anticipated," contradicting forecasts that day, which showed the storm's path not to be near Alabama.

The kerfuffle over those remarks lasted more than a week, well after the storm devastated the Bahamas and caused major damage in the Carolinas. At that time of Trump's tweet, the southeastern corner of Alabama stood at a minuscule risk of receiving tropical storm force winds in excess of 39 miles per hour. But the state was not in the National Hurricane Center's projected path for the storm or its "cone of uncertainty," which by that point showed the hurricane moving up the East Coast.

After Trump's initial tweet, which he repeated throughout the day, the National Weather Service's Birmingham staff tweeted: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian" because the storm "will remain too far east." A NWS spokeswoman told staff that the scientists who sent the tweet were unaware of the Trump tweet.

"I wanted to let you know that the forecasters in Birmingham who made the clarification post for Alabama was unaware of the [Trump] tweet when they made their post," Susan Buchanan, NWS' director of public affairs wrote in an email. "They had started getting a lot of calls from partners and the public out of the blue, asking about the hurricane and local impacts. They didn’t know what prompted these calls, but felt they needed to clarify from an operational perspective."

Days later, Trump displayed an apparently doctored map in the Oval Office that showed Alabama — circled in black marker that looked to be from a Sharpie — to be within Dorian's path.

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"This has really gotten out of hand," Chris Darden, the top forecaster in the NWS Birmingham office, wrote to NOAA officials after receiving another round of press inquiries following one of Trump's tweets on the hurricane maps. "One of my forecasters just messaged me and said CNN is contacting him on his personal twitter asking for comment."

The following day, NOAA released an unsigned statement defending Trump's claims about the hurricane's path, adding that NWS Birmingham staff was wrong to speak "in absolute terms" when they tweeted that Alabama was not at risk. That statement sparked backlash from forecasters.

"This statement is deeply upsetting to NOAA employees that have worked the hurricane and not fully accurate based on the timeline in question," Alek Krautmann, a program coordination officer at the NOAA, wrote in an email to John Leslie, a NOAA public affairs official. "Please raise this in feedback through proper channels."

Soon after the controversy began brewing, officials at the agency were told not to respond to a flood of media requests they were receiving and to instead pass all requests on to the agency's top press officials, emails showed. Officials were also told not to respond to questions related to the controversy via any official social media accounts.

Asked by one official how to handle questions on Trump's doctored hurricane map, Chris Vaccaro, a top press official at the agency, suggested saying: "I'm focused on the upcoming impacts from Dorian on the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic."

On the day of Trump's initial tweet and later remarks, Vaccaro responded to a media request by simply stating: "The current forecast path of Dorian does not include Alabama."

Following a flood of media questioning later in the week, Friedman emailed staff, "This is a difficult time."

"I know that political leadership is discussing next steps," he added.

Officials detailed "angry/hate mail and phone calls" regarding the controversial NOAA statement — detailing that some had to "turn off their cell phones due to the large volume of calls."

Not every response detailed in the email trove was negative, though. Forecasters in Bexar County, Texas sent the Birmingham officials a $50 Pizza Hut gift card following the NOAA statement disavowing their tweet.

"You're probably having a rough day. Just a little something to show we support & appreciate you. Please enjoy! - Your Supporters," the Texas forecasters wrote.

The agency's actions came under swift scrutiny in September. NOAA's acting chief scientist said in an email to staff that he would investigate why the agency backed Trump's claims over its own forecasters. According to the New York Times, the letter was also being reviewed by the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA.

A spokesperson for NOAA, Scott Smullen, told NBC News on Thursday that, "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."

The Times in September reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top employees at the NOAA over the Birmingham office's statement, according to three people familiar with the discussion. According to the Times, that threat led to NOAA's statement. A Commerce Department spokesperson called the Times' report "false" at the time.