All Was Quiet at the Birmingham Weather Office. Until a Trump Forecast Brought a Storm

All Was Quiet at the Birmingham Weather Office. Until a Trump Forecast Brought a Storm

In an alarmist forecast, Donald Trump warned on Twitter that Alabama and other states would likely be hit “harder than anticipated”.

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Calera (Alabama): It had been a sleepy Sunday morning in the National Weather Service’s office outside of Birmingham. The hot temperatures in the forecast were not out of the ordinary for the waning days of summer. There was a faraway tropical storm that the office was keeping an eye on — one with the name of Dorian — but with each passing day, it seemed more likely to veer in a different direction.

Then, out of nowhere, there came a flurry.

It was incoming phone calls from Alabamians energized about Hurricane Dorian, suddenly confused and worried about whether they were in the path of the giant Caribbean storm. At one point, the few people on duty were all answering calls at the same time.

In response to the alarm, one employee dashed off a short message to the office’s 50,000 Twitter followers that reaffirmed what the latest models were saying: Alabama had little to worry about.

A far more alarmist forecast had gone out 20 minutes before on an account with a much, much larger reach. Alabama and other states, @realDonaldTrump had warned, would likely be hit “harder than anticipated.”

The contrasting tweets set off a surprising clash that has stretched on for weeks, pitting top officials in the Trump administration against a small office of government weather experts — a group better equipped to forecast the path of tornadoes than the trajectory of a prickly president’s ire.

President Donald Trump has gone so far as to press his top aides to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, effectively reverse the local forecasters. An unsigned statement by the agency that seemed to back Trump over its own employees deepened the controversy.

The sequence of events cast an unwanted spotlight on the National Weather Service office in central Alabama, where forecasters occasionally fire up a barbecue in the backyard for collegial get-togethers and rarely discuss politics at their desks.

Until now, the office’s tight-knit staff of about 25 has offered little insight about what transpired that day and the fallout. In interviews with The New York Times, employees stood behind the tweet, which remains on the office’s Twitter feed. The person who wrote it declined through an intermediary to discuss the flap, but co-workers, expressing unity, argued that it had come from every last one of them.

They described the stressful aftermath, during which managers called staff members at home to help them deal with the pressure. A top official at the National Weather Service, they said, brought pizza to the office to temper their feeling of being under siege.

“You try to navigate these tricky waters that science people are not used to navigating,” said Kevin Laws, the office’s science and operations officer, who added that some employees were worried about how long the controversy would drag on and how many people it would sweep up. “What do you do in situations like this?”

Several forecasters said the employee who sent the tweet hadn’t even been aware of Trump’s post and had simply reacted to an influx of calls from the public.

“We don’t monitor the president’s tweets,” said Michael Garrison, who manages the office’s data on rainfall and temperatures and is the local steward for the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Up until this point, it has nothing to do with what we do.”

While Trump won Alabama with 62% of the vote back in 2016, Garrison said politics are not a “hot-button topic” in the office, which he said has a “good mix of Republicans and Democrats.”

Garrison and his colleagues said that the post — which was also shared on Facebook — was not motivated by politics, and that the employee who sent it felt badly that it brought unwanted attention on the office.

That Sunday was a typical weekend shift at the office, a light brown, one-story building on Weather Vane Road next to the county airport. Forecasters headed to work expected a few questions about Dorian, which seemed less relevant to the area than coming hot temperatures. The office had published a series of cautious tweets about the storm in the days before, but they all pointed to it having little impact on the area.

“The forecast track for #Dorian continues to shift a bit farther east,” the office posted on Aug. 31, the day before Trump would weigh in with a forecast of his own. “If this track verifies, we’ll be looking at dry conditions here in Central AL.”

On the weekends, the office is generally staffed with just a few people, who answer phones, monitor the weather, issue forecasts for pilots and post regular updates on social media.

Then the president weighed in with his weather update.

“It just started this big blitz,” said Garrison, an employee since 2002. “We were just caught in the crossfire.”

Some in the office have felt bewildered.

Chris Darden, the office’s meteorologist-in-charge, posted to his personal Facebook account that the past days had been the “most confusing and disheartening” of his career.

One meteorologist in the Birmingham office tweeted that he was “crawling out from under this bus” on the day NOAA issued the unsigned statement that many forecasters saw as a challenge to the Weather Service.

The next night, a senior meteorologist changed his Facebook profile picture to the agency’s logo and included a message: “NWS Birmingham Strong!”

The central Alabama outpost, one of 122 field offices across the country, is responsible for warnings and forecasts in 39 counties, some of which have been hit in recent years by deadly tornadoes.

The last time the Birmingham office made national news was when it was praised for issuing a tornado warning a full 12 minutes before a twister swept in. That was considered significant lead time and was credited with saving lives, even though the storm killed 23 people. For generations, central Alabamians have relied on the office, which is one of three in the state. (Another office, in Tallahassee, Florida, covers five Alabama counties.)

“Of all the government agencies out there, they are the ones I believe in,” said Russell Thomas, who helps coordinate the efforts of the Alabama Emergency Response Team, a volunteer group that assists the office during bad weather.

As the office has tried to stay focused on coming storms, it has had to contend with a sustained campaign by Trump to back up the merits of his Twitter post, which has been widely ridiculed for being misleading, based on out-of-date information and ultimately incorrect.

Forecasters originally predicted that Hurricane Dorian’s effects could reach Alabama, but by the time Trump said the state could feel its effects, projections showed the storm headed up the East Coast. Even so, in the Oval Office days later, Trump showed reporters a blown-up map of the storm’s predicted path, its route extended slightly into southeast Alabama with a black marker.

The Times reported Wednesday that Trump had pressed his aides to intervene with NOAA officials and have the agency “clarify” its forecasters’ position. That prompted Mick Mulvaney, his chief of staff, to call Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. Ross then warned NOAA’s acting administrator that top agency employees could be fired if the situation were not addressed. Ross’ spokesman had denied he threatened to fire anyone.

At a weather conference in Huntsville last week, the National Weather Service director forcefully defended the Birmingham office, asking its members to stand for a round of applause.

“Let me be clear. The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety — the same goal that all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time,” said Louis Uccellini, the director.

The next day, Neil Jacobs, director of NOAA, struck a diplomatic tone in a speech at the conference, thanking the Birmingham office while praising the Trump administration as “committed to the important mission of weather forecasting.” He would later praise the office’s efforts in an all-staff email.

Outside the ballroom where Jacobs addressed the forecasters, Laws, the science and operations officer, was ready to get back to dealing with actual storms.

“The next tornado outbreak’s right around the corner,” he said.

Steve Eder and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs c.2019 The New York Times Company

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