In other words, NOAA’s leadership—under threat from a Cabinet official—discredited its professional employees for correctly forecasting that Hurricane Dorian would not hit Alabama.
The Times report shows that NOAA did so because the Birmingham office’s forecast was politically inconvenient to Trump. Kevin Manning, a Commerce Department spokesman disputed the Times’s reporting in a statement: “The New York Times story is false. Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.” A spokeswoman for the Times told me the paper is confident in its reporting.
According to Louis Uccellini, the director of the National Weather Service, the Birmingham forecasters published their tweet before they even knew that Trump was behind the rumors. On September 1, they got a flurry of calls from journalists and Alabamians asking whether Dorian was on track for their state. They rushed to shut down those fears.
“They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” Uccellini said today, according to The Washington Post. “And they responded not knowing where this information was coming from. Only later, [when] the retweets and the politically based comments came into their office, did they learn the source of this information.”
The debacle shows that Ross now poses a grave threat to NOAA’s ability to uphold its mission. NOAA and the NWS are two of the most open, free, and publicly accessible departments of the federal government. NWS employees publish hundreds of forecasts every day without any Washington politician bothering them. Anyone and everyone can access those forecasts for free. And any American can call their local NWS office and get a question answered.
The system is designed to work this way. The thinking goes that in a free society, everyone will benefit if everyone can know about the weather. According to federal data, accurate weather forecasts produce more than $31 billion in value across the U.S. economy every year. They cost about a 10th of that figure. Under NOAA’s leadership, weather science has leapt forward: Today, a five-day forecast is as accurate and reliable as a one-day forecast was in 1980, according to a recent study.
Ross’s interference, and the acquiescence of NOAA’s political leadership, threaten to change all that. If forecasters cannot confidently talk to the public about the weather without some political official getting in the way, then American life will get worse. Hurricane forecasts are some of the highest-stakes work done by NOAA, and the consequences of getting them wrong can be costly. If the White House can intervene in their production—or can mess with the record after the fact—then Americans will slowly stop trusting them. Some Americans will fail to prepare for storms when they should; others will make useless preparations. It will be pointlessly costly. For some people, it will be deadly.