OK, let's begin with the obvious. The POTUS is not a meteorologist (although he's been known to play one on TV). Meteorologists pride themselves on using the best scientific tools at their disposal in order to provide the public with the most possible accurate weather forecast. Full stop.
Meanwhile, the POTUS has shown himself to be less than science-friendly. And there's the rub.
Now generally I don't get too involved in whatever kerfuffle the White House is embroiled in at any given moment, but when it comes to all things agriculture (and what is more agriculture-dependent than the weather) I pay attention.
And what one comes away with regarding the POTUS' September #Sharpie-gate surprise regarding the potential storm track of Hurricane Dorian is that this particular White House has no problems with providing the public with misleading (some would say false or outdated) weather projections to protect the President's beliefs (right or wrong).
Anyone reading my December 2016 blog to fellow journalists would not be surprised that weather forecasts could one day could not only become twisted but politicized. Truth is a fragile thing.
Here is a tick-tock of how key events unfolded:
August 29: POTUS receives a projection map from the National Hurricane Center with a time stamp of 11 a.m. indicating Hurricane Dorian might make landfall in Florida and that a portion of southeastern Georgia was also at risk.
September 1: POTUS tweets that “South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” But by that date no, none, zippo, nada, zero meteorologists were predicting Dorian would hit Alabama. In fact eight …. yeah EIGHT ...National Hurricane updates over the previous 24 hours showed Dorian moving up Florida's east coast.
About 20 minutes after the POTUS Alabama tweet the National Weather Service's Birmingham, Alabama office, responding to a flood of phone calls from concerned citizens, issued its own tweet saying “Alabama “will NOT see any impacts from Dorian.”
September 4: Here's where it gets weird. The POTUS releases a video from the Oval Office where he displays the August 29, 11:00 a.m. National Hurricane Center map doctored with a sharpie marker to show Alabama within the storm's path. Throughout the day the POTUS asserted almost all models showed Dorian hitting Alabama.
In his briefings the POTUS says he was told there was a “95 percent chance” that Dorian would strike Alabama” and that “Alabama was hit very hard – was going to be hit very hard.”
By now the national dailies were getting in on the act. The Washington Post reported that NWS employees were told to keep their opinions to themselves on whether or not Alabama was in the storm track.
September 6. This day weather forecasts become politicized. In a what the #$%^&* moment the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published an unsigned statement affirming that NHC projections did indeed showed Dorian could impact Alabama by that the tweet from the Birminghanm NWS office was incorrect (emphasis added).
The NOAA statement set off a firestorm from meteorologists around the country as well as the president of the National Weather Services' Employees Organization. Dan Sobien tweeted “Let me assure you the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management tonight #NOAA.”
September 9: The New York Times reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had personally pressured NOAA acting administrator Neil Jacobs to side with the POTUS' belief that Dorian had indeed been projected to hit Alabama.
September 11: The Washington Post reports that Acting White House chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Ross to pressure NOAA to support the POTUS version of events and to disavow the tweet from the NWS Birmingham office. The Washington Post also reported the POTUS directly told staffers to get the contradiction fixed.
By now dear reader you must be wondering how have we as a nation come to this? Let me start with my belief that the U.S. has the best weather services in the world. The National Hurricaine Service absolutely nailed Dorrian's storm track. A December 2018 survey from the University of Oklahoma shows roughly 80 percent of the public have either “complete” or “high” trust in the NWS.
But I got to wonder if politicizing weather forecasting will one day more directly impacting farmers and the services they rely on for their livelihood. That would be tragic.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.