The scandal that has become known as "Sharpiegate" damaged NOAA's credibility and may have undercut public trust in the agency's apolitical weather forecasting, Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said in a long-awaited report released yesterday.
"Instead of focusing on NOAA's successful hurricane forecast, the Department unnecessarily rebuked [National Weather Service] forecasters for issuing a public safety message about Hurricane Dorian in response to public inquiries—that is, for doing their jobs," the report said.
The report details a series of incidents that snowballed over the course of a week after President Trump falsely declared in September of 2019 that Hurricane Dorian was set to hit Alabama.
The National Weather Service's Birmingham office corrected the president's statement, leading NOAA to issue a statement undermining its own scientists at the behest of the White House and Commerce's political officials.
The report comes after a long political back-and-forth with Capitol Hill and after Gustafson, an Obama appointee, said in an unusual statement last week that Commerce officials were "claiming amorphous and generalized privileges, which effectively prevent us from publicly releasing the evaluation that is otherwise ready for release.”
The original incident stemmed from a tweet on 1 September 2019, in which President Trump declared that Alabama "will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian.
The next day, NWS Birmingham issued its own tweet clarifying that the state would not see impacts from the storm.
Trump subsequently appeared at an Oval Office event in front of a forecast map that had been altered by a black marker to show Alabama in Dorian's path, which earned the incident the "Sharpiegate" nickname.
But at issue in the IG report is an unsigned 6 September statement from NOAA that declared that NWS Birmingham's tweet "spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."
The statement was widely criticized as a political rebuke of scientists at the time, and the report lays out a detailed timeline that shows White House officials working with Commerce's political appointees to publicly contradict the Birmingham office and ameliorate the president.
In an email on the evening of 5 September to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney questioned why the NWS Birmingham had declared that Alabama was not at risk at all, rather than noting that the state had at one point been on the outer ranges of the storm's path projections.
"As it currently stands, it appears as if the NWS intentionally contradicted the president. And we need to know why," Mulvaney wrote, according to the report. "He wants either a correction or an explanation or both."
The Birmingham office said it was simply responding to calls of concern from the public and not directly to the president's tweet.
Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs nonetheless said that "things went crazy in the middle of the night" after he had turned off his phone ringer for the evening on 5 September, according to the report.
What followed was a series of late night and early morning texts involving Jacobs; Julie Roberts, then serving as NOAA's communications director; and Commerce Chief of Staff Michael Walsh, who Ross had asked to handle the "Alabama situation."
Gustafson said it all amounted to a "flawed process," where Ross did not use his full authority to push back against the White House and Jacobs did not bring in additional NOAA officials to help with the response.
"Ultimately, NOAA issued a Statement that, from the perspective of one senior NOAA official, 'hurt the Department and it hurt NOAA, it hurt the White House, it hurt the public, it hurt the science community,'" the report said.
"And, specifically with respect to NWS, the line in the Statement that rebuked NWS Birmingham undercut NWS forecasters and created the possibility that forecasters would second-guess or delay their public safety tweets or warnings — an issue with life-and-death consequences, given the public safety role of NWS," the report said.
In a response attached to the report, Walsh said the conclusions "are completely unsupported by any evidence or factual findings."
The statement NOAA ultimately published on 6 September, he said, was not scientifically inaccurate, and its substance is not disputed by the IG report.
"The record shows that the process I designed was open and collaborative and intended to achieve a consensus-based outcome," Walsh said.
Disputes over the incident have been ongoing for nearly a year. Gustafson opened her investigation on 7 September—the day after the NOAA statement drew widespread public condemnation.
The report does not recommend punishments or major policy changes, even though one senior NOAA official told the IG that the incident "hit at the core" of the agency.
Still, the report found that "although NOAA's credibility and employees' morale took a serious hit, NOAA employees expressed their readiness to move forward."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net