NOAA chief defends Alabama office after Trump Dorian tweet

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday defended a regional National Weather Service (NWS) office in Alabama that told residents the state was not at risk from Hurricane Dorian and said no one will lose their jobs.

President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on Sept. 1 that “in addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

The NWS Birmingham office quickly responded on Twitter: writing: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

After days of controversy, NOAA released an unsigned statement Friday that suggested the Birmingham tweet “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

It referenced a storm probability map that on Sept. 1 forecast a 5-10% chance of tropical storm force winds hitting a small sliver of southeast Alabama.

Neil Jacobs, NOAA’s acting administrator, said at a conference on Tuesday in Alabama that the Friday statement “did not say 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.” He added that “at one point Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the southeast.”

Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson is reviewing NOAA’s Friday statement, said Robert Johnson, Gustafson’s chief of staff, in an email to Reuters, declining to elaborate and saying the office “does not comment on open matters under review.”

On Monday, the New York Times reported Gustafson told NOAA staff to preserve records related to Friday’s statement, saying it calls “into question the NWS’s processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency.”

The Times also reported Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Secretary threatened to fire top employees after the Birmingham office contradicted Trump. Jacobs sought to reassure employees.

“No one’s job is under threat, not mine, not yours. The weather service team has my full support,” Jacobs said. “Weather should not be a partisan issue.”

A spokesman for Ross said he “did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said she was “deeply troubled that NOAA is politicizing weather prediction critical for the protection of life and property in contravention of internal operations services and policy directives.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown