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Mixing politics and hurricane forecasting is not funny | Editorial

Stop the sniping between weather agencies. They should not be dragged into the storm over President Donald Trump’s false statement about Hurricane Dorian.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) [EVAN VUCCI | AP]
Published Sep. 9

By now everyone should be sick of hearing about President Donald Trump’s false claim that Alabama could be hit hard by Hurricane Dorian and about his doctored weather map. Enough with the one-liners and the Sharpie memes, and let’s move on. But there is nothing funny about hurricane forecasting being politicized and government agencies responsible for weather forecasts sniping at each other. Floridians have to trust hurricane forecasts are accurate and nonpolitical -- because our lives depend on it.

The situation escalated Monday as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service became further tangled in the political storm over Trump’s false claim and sophomoric attempt to defend it. The Washington Post reported NOAA’s acting chief scientist told colleagues in an email Sunday that he is investigating the agency’s odd defense Friday of Trump’s misstatement. Meanwhile, the director of the National Weather Service broke with NOAA by backing the weather service’s forecasters and their performance. None of this is good for public confidence in hurricane forecasting, or for state and local emergency officials who depend on the forecasts to make critical preparations and issue evacuation orders.

Trump sparked the latest fury as he often does, by casually throwing out a falsehood and then doubling down when confronted with the facts. On Sept. 1, as Hurricane Dorian approached Florida’s east coast, Trump tweeted: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Yet forecasts at the time showed Alabama in no danger at all, with the official forecast track headed north, not west. Within minutes of Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., sought to correct the record: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

Of course, that was the only responsible reaction from the weather service. But as usual Trump would not let it go, and on Wednesday he displayed an outdated NOAA forecast in the Oval Office that had been doctored with a black semi-circle that extended the path of the hurricane cone into Alabama. The Washington Post reported that Trump used a black Sharpie marker to alter the map. As the political winds continued to blow on Friday, NOAA released a stunning rebuke of the Birmingham weather office, saying that information “demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama.” The New York Times reported Monday that statement came hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top NOAA employees because the Birmingham weather office had contradicted the president.

Professional weather forecasters should not be transformed into political pawns. “You have science organizations putting out statements against their own offices,” Craig Fugate, Florida’s emergency management chief under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Democratic President Barack Obama, The Associated Press reported. “For the life of me, I don’t think I would have ever faced this under President Obama or Gov. Bush.”

The integrity and objectivity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service cannot be compromised, regardless of who is president. Hurricane warnings and weather forecasts are not political statements, and public trust in them is essential. Floridians making decisions about buying supplies, closing businesses and evacuating cannot be wondering whether the projected path of the next major hurricane is tainted by politics or a false statement by the president, regardless of political party.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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