Weather chief thanks Alabama employees for Dorian forecast

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. | Struggling to keep his emotions in check, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both defended President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday and thanked forecasters who contradicted the president’s claims about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama.

Speaking to a meteorology group, acting administrator Neil Jacobs said a NOAA statement issued Friday that criticized the Birmingham-area National Weather Service office after it disagreed with Trump was meant to clarify “technical aspects” about Dorian’s potential impact.

“What it did not say, however, was that we understood and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs, a career meteorologist, appeared near tears at times. “This is hard for me,” he said, his voice choking as he addressed a hushed crowd of several hundred.

Jacobs said there was no pressure from the Trump administration or NOAA to change the way branch offices communicate forecasts to the public. “No one’s job is under threat – not mine, not yours,” he said.

He later added: “Weather should not be a partisan issue. I’ve known some of you for 25 years. I haven’t changed. I’m the same Neil I was last Thursday,” referring to the day before the NOAA statement was issued.

Jacobs specifically thanked Kevin Laws, science and operations officer with the weather service office in Birmingham. Laws said he appreciated the remarks by Jacobs, whom he has known for 20 years.

“Absolutely no hard feelings,” Laws said.

The acting chief scientist at NOAA previously said the agency likely violated its scientific integrity rules when it publicly chastised the office in the unsigned statement, and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire asked the inspector general to investigate.

Past NOAA administrators, a former National Weather Service chief and a former National Hurricane Center director — among others — have blasted the NOAA statement as inappropriate, saying they supported the chastised Alabama weather office.

Kathy Sullivan, who ran NOAA under former President Barack Obama, said Jacobs’ words won’t fix a “breach of trust” he created.

“A trust has been shattered and only actions can repair it,” she said in a written statement. “Trust is like glass: shatters in an instant, with a single blow, and takes a long time to restore.”

The world’s largest general science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said weather forecasters should not be “asked to change a weather forecast in reaction to any political pressure.”

Retired Adm. David W. Titley, an assistant NOAA administrator during the Obama administration and former meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University, said it seemed Jacobs was stuck between orders from the White House and Department of Commerce and a rebellion by some in the National Weather Service.

“For some reason he seems desperate to keep his job – and this results in the pathos we saw this morning,” Titley said in an email to The Associated Press. “Personally, I think his situation is untenable; he should attempt to salvage what’s left of his self-respect. He either stands by the Friday p.m. statement or he does not – but he can’t have it both ways.”

Paul Schlatter, president of the 2,100-member National Weather Association, where Jacobs spoke, said he doesn’t envy Jacobs, who he described as a career “weather geek” caught in a tough position.

Weather officials said Birmingham forecasters didn’t realize until reaction appeared on social media that the rumors about Dorian threatening the state started with the tweet from Trump, who apparently was relying on information several days old.

The office issued a tweet of its own saying Alabama wasn’t at risk.

Laws said Birmingham forecasters working in the agency’s suburban office Sept. 1 were having a quiet morning when the phones suddenly lit up.

“We got calls about people having surgery and should they cancel. We got calls about ‘Should I go get my elderly parents?’ There were so many concerns,” he said.

Jacobs said Dorian presented forecasters with a “particularly difficult” challenge and noted that, “at one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast.”

While some forecasters had talked about walking out on Jacobs’ speech or staging some sort of protest, there was no demonstration and he received polite applause.

AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.