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As a busy hurricane season looms, NOAA’s credibility has taken a hit, e-mails show

 As hurricane season starts Monday, most of North Carolina’s coastal counties are grappling with shortfalls or concerns about equipment and resources as they balance the dual threat of tropical weather and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As hurricane season starts Monday, most of North Carolina’s coastal counties are grappling with shortfalls or concerns about equipment and resources as they balance the dual threat of tropical weather and the COVID-19 pandemic.Gerry Broome/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is getting underway with the country’s weather forecast agency in an unfamiliar situation. Facing what it expects to be an unusually active season, with 13 to 19 named storms, forecasters at the National Weather Service will have to contend with lingering questions about their ability to operate independently after political interference from the White House during 2019’s Hurricane Dorian.

Monday brought the release of hundreds of e-mails that The Washington Post and other media outlets had requested from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NWS’s parent agency — under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The records request is related to President Trump’s erroneous tweet about the hurricane and efforts to retroactively justify it. This latest release, the seventh since the dust-up shined a spotlight on the politicization of weather forecasts, shows concerned citizens and NOAA constituents writing scathing emails of concern to the agency’s leaders in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane’s assault on the Bahamas and the Southeastern United States.

Many of the e-mails excoriate NOAA’s leaders for issuing an unsigned statement Sept. 6, which backed up an inaccurate assertion from Trump days earlier that Alabama ‘‘will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated’’ by the Category 5 storm.

That statement criticized the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala., for a tweet that contradicted Trump’s claims by definitively stating that the storm posed no threat to the state. By issuing that tweet, meteorologists in Birmingham were responding to a flood of calls from residents expressing concern about the storm.

The NOAA statement was widely interpreted within its National Weather Service as contradicting an accurate forecast because of political pressure from the White House and the Commerce Department. The Post has reported that the demand for NOAA to issue the statement came from then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, at the request of the president, via officials at the Commerce Department.

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A rare confluence of events is combining to make the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season more fraught for the previously uncontroversial oceans and atmosphere agency, and to put more pressure on its scientists to make accurate forecasts and communicate them clearly.

The 2020 hurricane season comes in the wake of what came to be known as ‘‘Sharpiegate,’’ due to Trump’s modification of a NOAA weather map to show Hurricane Dorian traveling in the direction of Alabama. But it also comes amid a pandemic, which complicates both NOAA’s own operations and storm response efforts by emergency managers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with which NOAA works closely.

Based on the e-mails, sent within a few days of the Sept. 6 NOAA statement on Hurricane Dorian, some coastal residents state that they are less likely to trust NOAA’s hurricane forecasts in the wake of Dorian.

One e-mail from a member of the public, addressed to acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs and then-deputy chief of staff Julie Roberts, states, ‘‘Going forward, I will have less faith in NOAA’s forecasts, because I won’t know how they might have been tainted by politics.’’

‘‘Mostly, I will have to question whether there has been micromanagement of NOAA’s forecasts by the president,’’ the letter states.

Another e-mail from a member of the public, this time sent to Jacobs, contains the question: ‘‘How can I trust anything coming from NOAA anymore?’’

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Many of the e-mails released Monday are laced with profanity, showing the vitriol directed at NOAA leadership following the September 6 statement, which was not signed by any official.

The e-mails show that on Sept. 7, retired Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, the number two official at the agency, was told that other communications channels, including personal phone and e-mail accounts as well as phone lines at weather forecast offices, were being targeted with ‘‘a lot of angry/hate mail and phone calls.’’

A NOAA spokesman said the Weather Service is ready for the active season, noting it has already dealt with two named storms. ‘‘The public and our partners in the emergency management community should continue to rely on the forecasts issued from across the National Weather Service, including the National Hurricane Center, just as they have over the agency’s 150-year history,’’ the spokesman said.