Former NOAA Official On Trump's Alabama Hurricane Threat

Sep 7, 2019
Originally published on September 7, 2019 9:32 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One place that's escaped any impact from Hurricane Dorian is Alabama, but there's still a storm of a different kind. It's the controversy around President Trump's assertion that the state had at one point been in the potential path of Hurricane Dorian. The president first made that claim almost a week ago in a tweet. The National Weather Service, the forecasting agency of the U.S. government, responded with a tweet of its own, stating that Alabama would not, in fact, see any impact from the storm.

But Trump kept it going. He produced a forecast map in which Dorian's projected probable path was extended into Alabama. It was extended by hand using a Sharpie pen, which happens to be one of President Trump's favorite writing implements. Then yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the government agency that runs the National Weather Service, took the unusual step of issuing an unsigned statement siding with the president instead of its own in-house experts. Some are now calling this Sharpie-gate.

But joining us to talk more about this - and really, more important, why it matters - is Monica Medina. She's a former top official at NOAA. She's here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Monica Medina, thank you so much for joining us.

MONICA MEDINA: Thanks, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So all right. Let's just give the president the benefit of the doubt. Very early in the process of tracking Hurricane Dorian, did any of the early projections take it anywhere near Alabama?

MEDINA: In fact, they did. And the president's information was slightly out of date. And the weather service Birmingham office that put out that tweet was responding to lots of confusion about whether the storm was going across the state of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, potentially to hit Alabama or up the East Coast. And it had taken a turn at that point a few days earlier. And the information needed to be clarified. There was lots of confusion in Alabama. And so the weather forecasting office did what it should do and what it ordinarily does and what is routine, which is to clarify and make sure that everyone knew what's the latest, what's the working forecast.

MARTIN: But - so - but by Thursday, when the president produced this map, which extended the path of the hurricane into Alabama - at that point, was that true?

MEDINA: At that point, it was not at all true. It was completely out of date and wrong to change that forecast map. And there's a statute that prohibits anyone from doing that because that forecast map sets the forecast for all the government forecasters and the private forecasters - everyone in the weather enterprise, we call it. It's a public-private partnership and it's really important that everyone be consistent.

MARTIN: So talk a little more about why this matters that the parent agency, which is NOAA is essentially - I don't know what other word to use - undermining its own in-house experts.

MEDINA: That's the right word for it. And I'll tell you why. I think back to 2015. There was the worst commercial shipping accident in modern history, the wreck of the El Faro. It's been studied greatly. The forecast that the El Faro was using was nine hours behind. It was a similar hurricane that took a turn. They were using an outdated forecast. They sailed directly into the eye of the hurricane, and everyone was lost. That's why it's so important.

MARTIN: So your concern here is that local forecast offices have to be able to correct misinformation even if there's no malintent...

MEDINA: Even if...

MARTIN: ...Without fear of reprisal.

MEDINA: Absolutely - no fear of reprisal because they need to be able to convey the absolute truth and not worry that their political bosses will correct them - will punish them for correcting the record.

MARTIN: That's Monica Medina, a former principal deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She's now founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet. That's an independent daily environmental e-newsletter.

Monica Medina, thanks so much for talking with us.

MEDINA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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