The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration walked into his speech Tuesday morning an embattled man. Neil Jacobs’ organization has come under fire for releasing an unsigned statement defending President Donald Trump’s inaccurate tweet about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama. And on Monday, The New York Times reported it was Jacobs whom Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pressured to release the statement.
Jacobs’ comments weren’t exactly enlightening. And his defense of the Alabama forecasters who contradicted Trump was somewhat halfhearted.
Jacobs did not dwell on the unsigned statement or talk about how it came to be. But he did suggest it was missing something.
“What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety,” Jacobs said at the National Weather Service’s annual meeting, which just happened to be in Alabama. Jacobs praised the “outstanding work” of the forecast offices, “including Birmingham.”
The words “understand” and “intent” are doing a lot of work here. Shortly after Trump’s warning that Alabama was “likely” to be hit “(much) harder” than expected, the NWS’s Birmingham office tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.” The NOAA statement released Friday, though, faulted the Birmingham office for speaking “in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
The NOAA statement gave the illusion of defending Trump, but it only mentioned the possibility of “tropical-storm-force winds” that could hit Alabama, which had not been in the path of the storm when Trump tweeted. It did not bolster Trump’s claim of the “(much) harder” hit on Alabama that he said was probable.
By saying that NOAA leadership “understand” the “good intent” of the Birmingham office, Jacobs isn’t backing off that statement. Instead, he’s suggesting that it meant well, even if it was at fault.
Jacobs’ comments lie in contrast to the head of the NWS, Louis Uccellini, who more explicitly said that the NWS Birmingham office had done the right thing. Uccellini said the office “did what any office would do to protect the public” and that “they did that with one thing in mind: public safety.”
The bigger question is how the statement came to be. Since it wasn’t signed, nobody is specifically vouching for it. The Times reported that Jacobs resisted the pressure from Ross, but the statement was eventually released anyway:
“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 office’s statement ‘inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.’ “
The NOAA’s chief scientist has said the NOAA statement was “political” and a “danger to public health and safety.” And it’s nearly impossible to argue otherwise. Whether the Birmingham office overreached or not, the NOAA statement didn’t actually address what Trump said.
The “intent” comment wasn’t the only carefully worded comment Jacobs made. According to those present at the speech, at another point Jacobs said, “There is no pressure to change the way to forecast risk in the future. Nobody’s job is at risk – not mine, not yours.” Again, the question isn’t about whether forecasts are under pressure “in the future,” but whether NOAA was under pressure last week.
Jacobs added that he would clear his calendar and visit as many NWS offices as he could around the country. “Weather should not be a partisan issue,” he said, adding. “I haven’t changed. I’m the same person I was last Thursday.”
But weather is now a partisan issue – at least in this instance. And Jacobs left many questions about that unanswered on Tuesday.