WASHINGTON — Democrats on the House Science Committee are launching an investigation into the Commerce Department’s involvement in NOAA’s unusual decision to back President Donald Trump’s position that Hurricane Dorian posed a significant threat to Alabama as of Sept. 1, in contrast to what the agency’s forecasters were predicting at the time.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross requesting information related to the department’s dealings with NOAA regarding Hurricane Dorian.
The committee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA, is requesting a briefing with Commerce Department staff who may have been involved in issuing instructions to NOAA that led to several directives issued to Weather Service staff and culminated in the Sept. 6 unsigned statement, which disavowed a tweet sent by the agency’s Birmingham Weather Service forecast office on Sept. 1. That tweet definitively stated that Alabama would not see any impacts from Dorian, and came in response to a flood of phone calls to the office from worried residents.
After sending the tweet, NWS staff learned the calls originated from a tweet from Trump that falsely asserted the state “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the powerful hurricane.
The NOAA statement on Sept. 6 admonished the Birmingham division for speaking “in absolute terms” when it tweeted Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
It resulted in part from pressure that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross brought to bear on Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, in an early morning phone call on Friday from Greece, where the secretary was traveling for meetings, according to three individuals familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to speak on a sensitive issue.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” Johnson and Sherrill wrote to Ross.
The House members are seeking answers to who ordered and helped draft the Sept. 6 statement, and whether Commerce Department or White House staff members involved in threatening NOAA leadership in order to secure the statement.
The Science Committee is requesting all records of communication between Commerce Department officials, NOAA and the White House between Sept. 1 and Sept. 9 pertaining to the president’s tweet and NOAA’s Sept. 6 statement.
The committee wants to hear from three Commerce Department officials in particular by Sept, 30: NOAA deputy chief of staff Julie Kay Roberts, Commerce Department chief of staff Michael Walsh Jr., and Commerce Department director of policy Earl Comstock.
At the time Trump sent the Sept. 1 tweet, the only hurricane forecast product that was showing potential impacts in Alabama at the time of the president’s tweet was the probability of seeing tropical storm force winds, and even that only showed about a 5% chance of such conditions in a small portion of the state. The official track forecast at the time of his tweet showed the storm moving up the Southeast coast, away from Alabama.
In addition to the House Science Committee’s investigation, other groups are initiating probes into NOAA’s decision back Trump’s claim that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian, despite contrary forecasts from its own scientists. These include the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General, and NOAA’s acting chief scientist.
A spokesperson for the National Weather Service confirmed Tuesday that the Commerce Department Inspector General had launched a probe. The spokesperson said two senior leaders had received notice of the investigation.
In addition, NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean wrote an email Sunday night saying he would be opening an investigation into whether the agency’s Sept. 6 statement, as well as previous emails to NWS staff, violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy.
“The content of this news release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” he wrote. “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises,” McLean wrote.
As a result, McLean told his staff that “I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.”
“I have a responsibility to pursue these truths,” he added. “I will.”
The scientific integrity policy includes a provision that states: “In no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings.”
These investigations are taking shape while outside groups called for inquiries and circulate letters of support for National Weather Service scientists.
Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA under President Barack Obama, Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist under Obama, and, Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy, filed a joint request for NOAA to initiate an investigation into possible violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, Lubchenco wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, a new tropical weather system is brewing, and this one may actually hit Alabama.