After Dorian, US weather service rocked by political storm
It all started on September 1, when the president tweeted that states including Alabama „will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” a few days after the fierce Atlantic storm became a hurricane.
Exactly 20 minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama tweeted directly contradicting the president: „Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
Trump hit back with eight more tweets in the following days, and a now infamous episode in which he presented a forecasting map that was doctored to include the southern state, apparently using a black Sharpie pen.
Dorian never touched Alabama, but by Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency which oversees the NWS, backed Trump and chastised the authors of the tweet from NWS Birmingham for dealing in „absolute terms.”
The probability of relatively strong winds hitting Alabama ranged from zero to 20 percent at the time of the NWS tweet — but there was no prediction for hurricane force winds.
That has not stopped commerce secretary Wilbur Ross from threatening to fire senior officials if they do not issue a public communique defending the president, the New York Times reported Monday.
– Standing ovation –
Meteorologists were stunned by what they saw as political interference, and the head of the NWS, Louis Uccellini, publicly defended his employees at an annual conference held Monday — in Alabama.
„When the phones and the social media lit up about 10:00 am Central Time on September 1st, they did what any office would do,” he said. „With an emphasis they deemed essential, they shut down what they thought were rumors.”
„The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety, the same goal as all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time,” he added, before asking the audience to join him in applauding those responsible.
The hall responded with a standing ovation.
„This has become a political situation, and it shouldn’t be, because we’re trying to save lives,” Bill Murray, the president of the Weather Factory private forecasting firm in Birmingham, who attended the meeting, told AFP.
„We totally stand with the National Weather Service in Birmingham, all meteorologists do,” he added.
Crucial policy decisions depend on weather forecasts — and the stakes are even higher when it comes to hurricanes, which are tracked by the National Hurricane Center in Miami, a small operation based in Miami that falls under the NOAA.
The NHC’s predictions about possible hurricane pathways lead in turn to evacuation zones, and creating a zone that is too small based on a faulty forecast can cost lives.
But erring too greatly on the side of the caution can spread panic and lead to the unnecessary movement of millions of people.
Trajectory predictions have come a long way in recent years — the expected forecast accuracy for a hurricane hitting in three days is about the same as it was for a one and a half day forecast just over a decade ago.
For Murray, Dorian was in fact a „success story” because meteorologists helped minimize disruption, particularly in Florida where Miami Airport was never shut down.
Trump tweeted over the weekend that the so-called „Sharpie-gate” scandal was „fake news” kept alive artificially by a hostile media.
The affair however could continue Tuesday when Neil Jacobs, the head of the NOAA, is set to speak at the same conference.
|In this Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, photo, baked earth is shown along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island, Utah. The lake’s size fluctuates naturally, with seasonal and long-term weather patterns. The Southwest U.S. has been experiencing record heat without much relief from seasonal rains that usually bring relief. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)|
An already above-normal summer for heat in parts of the United States is expected to get worse for much of the southern U.S., with record-challenging heat occurring through the rest of the week, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.
Despite what’s ahead, several cities have already experienced elevated estimated costs for cooling from May 1 through September 8 compared to normal cooling costs, according to an AccuWeather analysis.
Boston (30.3% higher), Norfolk, Virginia (28.4%), Atlanta (27.6%) and Salt Lake City (25.5%) have experienced substantially higher estimated cooling costs compared to normal.
In Norfolk, the average temperature during that span of 78.2 degrees F is an average of 3.3 degrees above normal. In Atlanta, it has been an average of 79.9, which is 3.2 degrees above normal, and Salt Lake City has experienced 10 100-degree days, compared to just two in 2018.
Other cities with elevated estimated cooling costs include Washington, D.C. (23.1%), Gainesville (19.5%), Philadelphia (18.2%), and New Orleans (17.1%).
AccuWeather forecasts it to be mainly dry and very warm to hot in the southeastern U.S. through the lower Mississippi Valley to the southern Plains much of this week. It should continue to be hot and humid from the lower Mississippi Valley to the southern Plains much of next week.
Oklahoma City continues to be an outlier in the other temperature direction. Its estimated cooling costs are 10.2% lower than normal. For the last 30 years, the city has averaged 73 days of the daily high temperature reaching at least 90 degrees; this year, there have been just 57 days with a high of at least 90 so far.
And in St. Louis, there has yet to be a 100-degree day; the high temperature twice reached 97 degrees. This would be the first year since 2009 without a 100-degree day and just the fourth time in 20 years. There were seven in 2017 and 21 in 2012.
As Bahamian officials continue to sort through the widespread destruction left by Hurricane Dorian, confusion and uncertainty has been rampant during much of the initial recovery process.
While the official death toll has slowly ticked upwards, residents, reporters and officials recognize that the final number will be far more staggering than what is being currently reported. As of Monday, the official tally is at 44 fatalities. By eyewitness accounts, the total will be hundreds, if not thousands.
As some have questioned the government’s truthfulness in the current death toll reports, Duane Sands, the Bahamas’ minister of health, told the Miami Herald that calculating the fatality total isn’t currently a higher priority than helping survivors get back on their feet.
|A Bahamas coroners team carries a body out of The Mudd neighborhood in the Marsh Harbor area of Abaco, Bahamas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. Dorian, the most powerful hurricane in the northwestern Bahamas’ recorded history, has killed at least 44 people in Bahamas as of Sunday, Sept. 8, according to the government. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)|
„I am actually a bit concerned that the focus has been for some people the body count,” Sands told the Herald. „It is not the priority. The priority is find those people for their loved ones who are missing them … To put food in people’s bellies, water in their throat.”
Sands added that officials have heard all the estimates and noted the large amount of missing people.
„We have to prepare for whatever inevitability and so whether it’s 1,000, or 2,000, or 500 body bags, we need to have the ability to make sure that every single remain can be treated with dignity and managed appropriately,” he said. „We are talking about a massive, multi-island operation.”
On Friday, the financial services ministry of the Bahamas called the situation a „humanitarian crisis” in a statement. Assistance has trickled in from all over the world, as countries have pledged financial support.
Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, wrote on Twitter that the country is „extending an immediate disaster relief of $1 million.”
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