“The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, the ensure public safety, the same goal as all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time,” Uccellini said Monday at a National Weather Association conference in Huntsville, Alabama.
Over Labor Day weekend, Trump tweeted that Alabama, as well as other southeast states, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Within 20 minutes, the National Weather Service station in Birmingham tweeted “Alabama will NOT see any impacts” from Dorian because it was projected to remain too far east by that point in time. Earlier forecasts considered Alabama as being in its projected path, but a National Hurricane Center graphic shows the odds of low-end tropical storm-force winds associated with Dorian striking Alabama dropping significantly by Sunday to roughly 5%.
Uccellini insisted the Birmingham office had no idea Trump was the source of concerned calls about Dorian and that it used “strong language” to ensure the state and local communities that there was “no threat.”
Video: Lead NOAA scientist vows to probe agencys defense of Trump
“They did that with one thing in mind: Public safety,” Uccellini said. “And they responded not knowing where this information was coming from. Only later, when the retweets and politically based comments came into their office did they learn the source of this information. Nevertheless, they were correct in clarifying that the threat was very low.”
Birmingham office staff were asked to stand up and received a standing ovation from hundreds of their forecasting colleagues.
The storm of controversy swirled last week as Trump repeatedly lashed out at the negative media coverage he received for his outdated forecast. The backlash intensified on Wednesday when Trump presented in the Oval Office a National Hurricane Center map of Dorians projected path from Aug. 29 and people noticed that added to the graphic was a black semicircle next to the forecast cone that reached over the Florida panhandle and a part of Alabama.
As outrage grew in the forecasting world, NOAA released a statement on Friday siding with Trump. “The Birmingham National Weather Services Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time,” an unnamed NOAA representative said.
The Washington Post reported that NOAA also issued an internal memo instructing staff not to contradict Trump about his Dorian forecast.
With concerns rising about the presidents influence over the top weather agency, an email to staff on Sunday announced NOAAs chief scientist is investigating whether there has been a violation of agency policies and ethics. In his message, Craig McLean said NOAAs news release was “political” and a danger to public health and safety.”
WASHINGTON — The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agencys Birmingham office contradicted President Trumps claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
That threat led to an unusual, unsigned statement later that Friday by the agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, disavowing the National Weather Services position that Alabama was not at risk. The reversal caused widespread anger within the agency and drew accusations from the scientific community that the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA, had been bent to political purposes.
NOAAs statement on Friday is now being examined by the Commerce Departments Office of Inspector General, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, and employees have been asked to preserve their files. NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department.
The National Weather Service must maintain standards of scientific integrity, the inspector general, Peggy E. Gustafson, wrote in a message to NOAA staff members in which she requested documents related to Fridays statement. The circumstances, she wrote, call into question the NWSs processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency.
The Commerce Department disputed the account on behalf of the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross Jr. Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian, the department said in a statement issued by a spokesman.
The spokesman declined to comment on whether Mr. Ross had spoken with the NOAA administrator or ordered the agency to rebut the statement contradicting the presidents assertion about a threat to Alabama.
The Commerce Departments Office of the Inspector General did not respond to requests for comment late Monday.
The accusations against Mr. Ross are the latest developments in a political imbroglio that began more than a week ago, when Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas and Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that Alabama would be hit harder than anticipated. A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., posted on Twitter that Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.
Mr. Trump persisted in saying that Alabama was at risk and a few days later, on Sept. 4, he displayed a NOAA map that appeared to have been altered with a black Sharpie to include Alabama in the area potentially affected by Dorian. (Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.)
Mr. Ross, the commerce secretary, intervened two days later, early last Friday, according to the three people familiar with his actions. Mr. Ross phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agencys perceived contradiction of the president.
Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode.
The political staff at an agency typically includes a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides. They are appointed to their jobs by the administration currently in power, as opposed to career government employees, who remain in their jobs as administrations come and go.
NOAA ultimately issued an unsigned statement last Friday calling the Birmingham offices statement inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.
A senior administration official who asked not to be identified when discussing internal deliberations said that the Birmingham office had been wrong and that NOAA had simply done the responsible thing and corrected the record.
That official suggested the Twitter post by the Birmingham forecasters had been motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama. The official provided no evidence to support that conclusion.
Craig N. McLean, NOAAs acting chief scientist, sent an email to staff members Monday notifying the agency that he was looking into potential violations in the agencys decision to ultimately back Mr. Trumps statements rather than those of its own scientists. He called the agencys action a danger to public health and safety.
Also on Monday, the National Weather Service director, Louis W. Uccellini, prompted a standing ovation at a weather industry conference in Huntsville, Ala., when he praised the work of the Birmingham office, asked them to stand and said staff members had acted with one thing in mind, public safety when they contradicted Mr. Trumps claim that Alabama was at risk.
The NOAA episode is the latest example of administration officials moving levers of government to accommodate Mr. Trumps statements. And few cabinet officials have been as loyal to Mr. Trump as Mr. Ross.
A billionaire investor, former steel magnate and friend and ally of Mr. Trump from the business world before joining the cabinet, Mr. Ross has in the past vigorously sought to advance divisive positions at the Commerce Department in support of policies advocated by Mr. Trump. He fought to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, only to lose in a stinging Supreme Court rebuke. He has also stood by the president on controversial decisions such as imposing tariffs on aluminum imports.
Mr. Trump himself has shown less deference than his predecessors to the traditional boundaries between the political and Civil Service sides of the government. Most notably, he has repeatedly called on the Justice Department to investigate his enemies.
In the NOAA dispute, Mr. Trump has also enlisted his Homeland Security adviser to issue a lengthy statement defending him.
The dispute at NOAA is also one of several instances of the Trump administration taking actions that undermine scientific findings. In the past, administration officials have tried to prevent a State Department official from testifying to Congress on climate-change science, and have tried to make changes to the standards used in government climate-change reports in a way that makes the threat from global warming appear less severe.
Richard Hirn, general counsel for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said what made the NOAA episode extraordinary, though, was that it was not part of an overarching policy dispute on a contentious topic like climate change. This is just to cover up an embarrassing mistake the president made, he said.
Mr. Hirn, who said he has worked with the agency through six administrations, added that, Never before has anybody tried to politicize the weather in all the administrations Ive worked with.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said that political appointees served at the pleasure of the president and the cabinet secretary and could be fired at will. But, he said, threatening to fire staff members under these circumstances goes against the norms and traditions that have been important to the government and are important to a functioning democracy.
Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last four presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He also is the author of five books, most recently “Impeachment: An American History.” @peterbakernyt • Facebook
Christopher Flavelle covers climate adaptation, focusing on how people, governments and businesses respond to the effects of global warming. @cflav
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman