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NOAA chief defends unsigned Dorian statement, but praises Alabama office that contradicted Trump

“The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects and potential impacts of Dorian,” NOAA acting Administrator Neil Jacobs said.
Image: Neil Jacobs
Neil Jacobs, acting administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaks at NOAA's 2019 Hurricane Season Outlook press conference May 23, 2019 in Arlington, Va.Win McNamee / Getty Images

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's acting chief on Tuesday sought to explain a controversial unsigned statement his agency put out last week defending President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama, but also thanked the Alabama weather office that had contradicted the president’s assertion.

In a speech to the National Weather Association, in Huntsville, Ala., NOAA acting Administrator Neil Jacobs said that the “purpose” of the agency's unsigned statement on Friday in defense of Trump was “was to clarify the technical aspects and potential impacts of Dorian.”

“What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham Weather Forecast Office, which was to calm fears and support public safety,” Jacobs added.

Attendees of the speech said Jacobs' voice cracked multiple times during his remarks and he appeared near tears at some points.

NOAA's Friday statement defended Trump's claims that the hurricane would affect Alabama, adding that National Weather Service's Birmingham office was wrong to speak "in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time” regarding its tweet insisting Alabama was not at risk.

According to The New York Times, the statement is being reviewed by the inspector general of the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA. NOAA is in charge of the National Weather Service.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds NOAA, has also called on the Commerce Department inspector general to investigate the statement.

Trump tweeted on Sept. 1 that Alabama "would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by the storm. At that time, 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.

About 20 minutes after Trump's tweet, the National Weather Service's office in Birmingham tweeted: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian" because the storm "will remain too far east." Trump, however, doubled down later that day, twice telling reporters that the storm was threatening Alabama. Then, on Wednesday, 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.

During his speech Tuesday, Jacobs discussed Hurricane Dorian and the difficulties of forecasting such an “incredibly intimidating” storm.

“At one point Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the southeast,” Jacobs said.

He added that the forecasts for Hurricane Dorian could have moved west or north in any direction.

“As everyone in this room knows, forecast models change,” he said. “It’s very hard to quantify possibilities and to translate that to what information the public needs.”

Meanwhile, NOAA’s acting chief scientist has said he would investigate why the agency backed Trump's claims about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama over its own forecasters.

In an internal email obtained by NBC News, NOAA's Craig McLean wrote Sunday that the Friday statement issued by the agency in defense of Trump "inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the [National Weather Service] forecaster."

McLean posted the full text of his message to the NOAA website Tuesday. He said that the statement Friday "violated NOAA's policies of scientific integrity."