Written by Peter Baker, Christopher Flavelle and Lisa Friedman
The secretary of commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham, Alabama, office contradicted President Donald Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
That threat led to an unusual, unsigned statement later that Friday by the agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, disavowing the National Weather Service’s position that Alabama was not at risk. The reversal caused widespread anger within the agency and drew accusations from the scientific community that the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA, had been bent to political purposes.
NOAA’s statement on Friday is now being examined by the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, and employees have been asked to preserve their files. NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department.
The National Weather Service “must maintain standards of scientific integrity,” the inspector general, Peggy E. Gustafson, wrote in a message to NOAA staff members in which she requested documents related to Friday’s statement. The circumstances, she wrote, “call into question the NWS’ processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency.”
The Commerce Department disputed the account on behalf of Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian,” the department said in a statement issued by a spokesman.
The accusations against Ross are the latest developments in a political imbroglio that began more than a week ago, when Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas and Trump wrote on Twitter that Alabama would be hit “harder than anticipated.” A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted on Twitter that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
Trump persisted in saying that Alabama was at risk, and a few days later, on Sept. 4, he displayed a NOAA map that appeared to have been altered with a black Sharpie to include Alabama in the area potentially affected by Dorian. (Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.)
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