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Debate Over The Politicization Of Weather Intensifies


The debate about the politicization of weather and science is intensifying. Remember - this all started last week when President Trump insisted that Hurricane Dorian was threatening the state of Alabama. Then he held up this map, which, according to reports, had been altered with a black marker to enlarge the area forecast to be hit by the storm. Then last Friday, the agency released a statement critical of National Weather Service staff in Birmingham. The agency in question - NOAA, which is the national organization that monitors weather for the federal government.

So the agency's chief scientist, Craig McLean, has announced in an internal email - he did so Sunday night - that he'll investigate potential violations of NOAA's policies. Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs spoke today at the annual meeting of the National Weather Association. Mary Scott Hodgin with member station WBHM was at the meeting, and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Hey. Happy to do it.

MARTIN: So what did Neil Jacobs have to say?

HODGIN: So he talked for about 30 minutes and mostly all about this controversy. He backed up the statement that NOAA sent out. But he also talked a lot about support for the National Weather Service. He said that the statement was meant to clarify. But he said something that was not in the statement, was the appreciation that NOAA has for the Weather Service and specifically for the Birmingham Weather Service. Towards the end of his speech, he also said that this whole thing has been really hard on him. So that was about it.

MARTIN: So it sounds like Jacobs is confirming what - the claim that the president made that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian when that's not what weather officials in the state were saying.

HODGIN: Yeah. I mean, he said, at one point, Alabama was in the mix for forecast models. But he also emphasized that forecasting is difficult and it constantly changes. One thing he said that he wanted to focus on moving forward is improving public understanding of radar maps and models. And he praised the efforts of the National Weather Service, and he said that the current presidential office is committed to Weather Service. So...

MARTIN: We should just...

HODGIN: ...A little bit of both.

MARTIN: We should just remind people why this is so important. This isn't just about a perceived presidential gaffe. There are reports that the secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, actually ordered or threatened to fire people at NOAA for speaking out initially against the president's claims. So this has larger repercussions. How were people who were there in the audience, what was their response like?

HODGIN: Yeah, absolutely. I spoke to a few different folks. One woman had said that Jacobs is walking a tough line, so he has to sort of speak to two different audiences and please them both. And she said that she was satisfied with the speech. But I talked to a few others who said that there was a lot of talking but nothing was said. But in general, it was a full house, and the crowd applauded. There was no protest or anything like that.

MARTIN: Any reaction from the National Weather Service?

HODGIN: Yeah. OK. I did - I talked with Kevin Laws, who's the science officer at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, which is the office that actually sent out the tweet that said Alabama was not under threat from Hurricane Dorian. And then it was the office that was called out in NOAA's statement. And Laws says he knows Jacobs personally - they went to school together - and he's in full support of NOAA. So you know...

MARTIN: All right.

HODGIN: ...He was not critical.

MARTIN: It continues. Mary Scott Hodgin with member station WBHM on the latest developments on this story. Thank you.

HODGIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Mary Scott Hodgin