In 2011 there was a massive tornado outbreak in the Southeast United States. The events killed over 300 people. That same year during an EF5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri an additional 161 people died. By all measures, the Weather Service did a brilliant job predicting, forecasting and issuing warnings for the storms. They had nailed the forecasts.
Then NOAA and NWS did something government agencies rarely do. They committed themselves to a significant change. This commitment wasn’t because they had failed. On paper, they had succeeded. This decision was made because they realized that nailing the forecast was simply not good enough. They needed to change the definition of success.
Here’s where last week’s events run up against the past eight years of work.
The Weather Service has been developing and executing a plan they call Weather-Ready Nation. Fundamentally, the change is simple: take how they communicate and how they provide information to local decision-makers just as seriously as getting the forecast right. As the entire weather enterprise has painfully learned, our science is only as good as our ability to get people to take action based on it.
The Weather Service staff — there are thousands of meteorologists stationed at local offices — has spent eight years prioritizing how to clearly, accurately, forcefully, and effectively communicate. They practice and train on how to communicate. And they run drills to build relationships with local decision makers in the calms before the storms. They have been trained to refute rumors and prioritize their position as a trusted source of information above all else. Rule one: never lie. Rule two: use strong, plain language.
So, regardless of who started the rumor, if a forecast office was receiving questions based on erroneous information, they would know they had to immediately and forcefully refute it. That’s what the NWS Birmingham office did last week: they used their training and experience to put the assertion that Alabama was in the path of the hurricane to bed. They tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian….the system will remain too far east.”
President Donald Trump had picked a fight over the weather, tweeting that Alabama was among the states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
Thankfully, this is not a fight he can win.
NOAA and the NWS keep receipts. They publish forecast guidance, graphics, and a trove of data many times a day. And every local news station has a weather “beat reporter” — the station’s meteorologist. As the political storm took off, the meteorological community kicked into gear defending their brothers and sisters in government, and they did so using all the information, images and guidance that NOAA/NWS had been publishing for days.
Come Thursday of last week the NWS continued to do its job, getting the nation through Hurricane Dorian. Then on Friday evening the political appointees at NOAA did what no political appointee I worked for at NOAA would have done. They released a statement supporting the President’s version of events over their own expert forecasters’. It was plainly cowardly and cravenly political.
My heart hurt all weekend for the men and women of the NWS — the leaders and the frontline forecasters and the career team at NOAA who must have been horrified at what the political appointees they work for did. I worried for the agency I love so dearly and fretted over the lasting impact this would have on its ability to do the job.
They have spent eight years doubling down on a culture that prioritizes how to merge trusted local communication with science products you can rely on and in that time they have learned that there is nothing more important to that endeavor than integrity.
But have faith, because it is going to turn out to be a great week to be a NOAA and NWS fan. Monday, the director of the National Weather Service gave a speech at a national meeting of meteorologists. The staff of the NWS Birmingham office and the rest of the NWS forecasters in attendance all reportedly received a standing ovation; and the director made plain why the local forecast office sent “that” tweet and why they were right to do so.
Then it was reported that the acting NOAA chief scientist, a career official, said that he would investigate why the agency’s leadership backed Trump over the agency’s forecasters and implied that it was likely a violation of the agency’s own scientific integrity policy.
You could not get a more classic NOAA/NWS one-two punch.
I always believed the rest of the federal government could learn something from how NOAA and the NWS approach their work and I believe that more strongly today. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We have since learned from the New York Times that the NOAA political appointees were threatened with termination last week by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (A spokesman for the Commerce Department denied that Ross made such threats).
I can’t predict how he or the White House will react to the latest shows of integrity from the career leadership. But today, before anything more breaks, my faith in career civil servants is strong and my trust in this nation’s weather enterprise stronger.