7 September 2019

Anger Among Public and Meteorologists after False Unsigned NOAA Statement

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Last Sunday morning the forecasters at the NWS were giving a huge sigh of relief. It had been certain for at least two days that Hurricane Dorian would not be an issue there. The forecast cone from the NHC by midday Saturday continued to show Florida and areas up the Eastern Seaboard would be in the path of Dorian. 

Then the phones started ringing off the hook and social media questions started piling in. All asking about the upcoming storm. These kinds of rumors get started frequently these days due to social media and every meteorologist working for the NWS gets used to them. So do meteorologists like me who work in TV.

A forecaster at the NWS office said that they had no idea where this rumor was coming from, but they did what we all do. They put out a statement on social media with the facts. The tweet from the NWS Birmingham is below.

That tweet was correct and based on good science. It would have been just as correct if it had been posted Saturday at 11:11 AM rather than a day later. Below is the NHC cone for 2 PM Saturday.

Below, posted on Twitter by Sam Lillo (Ph.D. candidate) at the Uni. of Oklahoma is every cone issued by the NHC regarding Dorian.

Alabama was NEVER mentioned in any advisory by the NHC. Yes, some people saw what are called spaghetti plots from the previous week showing Dorian crossing Florida, but no meteorologist took this seriously. For one thing, some of these plots just take the current speed and direction of the storm and extrapolate it into the future. Others are based on average climatology. Some of these are over 50 years old, and we know what is likely reliable data and what is not, and believe me the NHC does as well.

Even these, by early Sunday, were showing no chance of an impact in Alabama.

While the news story about what is now called sharpie gate was making the news, I decided not to write anything here. It will all pass I thought and frankly, the incredible story of a cat 5 hurricane sitting on top of the Bahamas and completely destroying the place was the real story.

Until tonight. When someone at NOAA threw the NWS Birmingham office under the bus that changed. I, and hundreds of other meteorologists were astounded at this.

Let me clear here and I am not going to write this in a nice way.

The NOAA statement Friday night was a lie.

It was totally false.

The person responsible for it should identify themselves Unfortunately, the statement was unsigned. I imagine hundreds of journalists are filing FOIA requests tonight with NOAA to find out.

I posted a blog post about this previously here and also on social media. So did many other meteorologists and we did it with a grimace because we know we will get inundated with comments and complaints because of the political nature of this story.

Broadcast meteorologists wear two hats. Scientist and science journalist. If I had ignored this, I would have been guilty of not covering a story because it would be unpopular with some people. The best thing I can do is to use my 40 years experience as a meteorologist and my science background, and follow the rules of good journalism to tell you the facts.

Many broadcast meteorologists tonight chose to be silent, and the NWS employees are likely silent because they fear for their jobs. I’ve decided not to be silent and will stick with that because what I do matters and it is important that people get accurate and non-politicized science information. That’s what this blog and my social media accounts are for and if that means putting up with complaints from people who suffer from extreme cognitive dissonance and cannot separate facts from their political worldview, I can put up with that. It comes with science journalism.

Not all were silent and that includes some NWS and NOAA employees. I expect the American Meteorological Society will have a statement about this soon (They absolutely should). The AGU who host this blog should as well. I first posted the story around 7 PM EDT but now in early morning Saturday, it’s front-page news on the NY Times, CNN and Washington Post. Seth Borenstein at AP has the story on the wire as well now.

Below is a sampling of comments from fellow meteorologists:

Dan Sobien is the NWS Employee Union President:

These are all from meteorologists/climatologists etc.

Dr. Shepherd is past President of the AMS

NWS Employee:

The Twitter feed of the NWS Birmingham is full of support for the office. I worked in Alabama for 20 years and they trust their meteorologists. Many times with their lives in tornado season. It is worth a read and a sample is below. Warning for language and humor.

From Brian McNoldy a friend and top hurricane researcher at the Uni. of Miami.

and more..Bill Karins at MSNBC (I think Bill is one of the best weathercasters I’ve ever seen.)

Another NWS Employee:

Final note:

There are not a lot of meteorologists around. Everyone at the NWS knows broadcast meteorologists and every broadcast met knows NWS meteorologists. We all show up at the same AMS and NWA conferences. The cooperation between us is truly a private government partnership that works amazingly well. It works because we all care deeply about giving the public accurate weather information and even more so when the weather can be deadly.

I know I speak for almost every meteorologist in the private sector when I say I support the folks at the NWS 100%. You did the right thing. We stand behind you 100%. To those in that office who I know, I’m proud of you and you know who you are. To James Spann at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham who also spoke up loud and clear tonight: I’m not surprised because that’s the kind of person you are. That said, it took courage and I am proud to call you a friend.

To the person at NOAA who wrote that press release for a Friday night news dump. I think you should have the courage to identify yourself. You lied to the public in an egregious way and in doing so you have damaged the trust between NOAA and the public and between NOAA and private sector meteorologists like me. This episode will not soon be forgotten.

Oh, and one more message to the author of the false NOAA statement Friday night: