If there’s one thing most Americans understand today, it’s that natural disasters are increasingly common, erratic, and dangerous. It’s not a partisan outlook. As residents along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard face the near-annual risk of weathering a devastating hurricane, tornadoes across the Midwest and elsewhere grow deadlier and more frequent, and drought-driven wildfires in the West scorch the parched earth more months of the year than ever before. It’s not about red states and blue states; every American is living at a heightened at-risk vibration regardless of partisan affiliation.
Those who deliver forecasts for a living know that people depend on them to get things right, and fast, in life-threatening situations, because lives might depend on it. No one is clearer about the weight of that responsibility than James Spann, chief meteorologist at television channel ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama. The NPR podcast Invisibilia profiled Spann in March, exploring how he has coped with the uncertainty of forecasting in the aftermath of the day in April 2011 when 29 tornadoes touched down across the state and four people lost their lives. For Spann, the weather is personal. And as Alabama political columnist Kyle Whitmire noted, “When there’s a severe weather threat in Alabama (which we have often) the northern half of the state turns to James Spann … In short, he’s a trusted voice and someone who goes out of his way to be apolitical.”
But that changed last Friday when news broke that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had issued a statement supporting Donald Trump’s errant tweet on Sept. 1 warning that Alabama would “mostly likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian. Following the tweet, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office received “a flurry of phone calls from concerned residents” regarding Trump’s ominous prediction. The office did what any responsible weather operation would do—it issued a correction to keep its public properly informed, stating that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts” from Dorian.
We now know that NWS Birmingham’s correction of Trump caused a commotion within the administration, resulting in Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, head of the department that houses NOAA, promising that heads would roll if the agency failed to “fix” Birmingham’s contradiction of Trump’s false tweet. Friday afternoon, an unattributed quote surfaced from NOAA supporting Trump’s bogus claim that Alabama could have been impacted by the storm.
James Spann didn’t waste a moment correcting the record and reasserting that Birmingham NWS had absolutely done the right thing. “The tweet from NWS Birmingham was spot on and accurate,” Spann tweeted Friday afternoon in response to the NOAA statement. “If they are coming after them, they might as well come after me. How in the world has it come to this?”
Indeed, the chief scientist at NOAA has now launched an investigation into the administration’s handling of the entire episode, because the immediate safety of American citizens is at risk. The agency’s response to the situation was “political” and a “danger to public health and safety,” Craig McLean wrote in an email to NOAA staff.
What separates Sharpiegate from so many other Trump scandals is both its accessibility to the public and the life-and-death urgency that government meteorologists have about the truth. These are federal employees who don’t have the luxury of weighing whether they are willing to risk their jobs by contradicting Trump and then simply deciding to leave the wreckage for another poor soul at a later date. If they’re worth a damn as meteorologists, accuracy and public safety are their driving motivations every time. That is why trusted forecasters such as Spann and others didn’t zip it, even if bureaucrats within the agency did buckle under pressure.
Importantly, it’s also a drama so simple and asinine, in spite of its weighty consequences, that anyone who has ever found themselves glued to weather updates during natural disasters can see what happened. It’s not a convoluted tale of spying and espionage muddied by the splicing of legal terms such as collusion versus conspiracy. It doesn’t involve violations of a statutory prohibition on presidential self-enrichment that no one had ever heard of pre-Trump. It isn’t a matter of abhorrent human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government on foreigners with life experiences most Americans can’t fathom even in the darkest corners of their minds. It’s not even a sordid spectacle of infidelity juiced up with secret payments and legal agreements designed to smother exposure.
It is simply a menacing weather event, a president who got the forecast wrong, and his obstinate refusal to admit his own mistake, even though real lives were at stake. It’s a group of weather forecasters unmasking a president’s petty recklessness by their refusal to play politics with people’s lives. After all, by the time Trump presented a doctored NOAA map from the Oval Office on Sept. 4 to prove his rightness, Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the Carolinas after already claiming dozens of lives in the Bahamas.
Given the well-documented body of lies that envelops Trump’s presidency, people have often wondered what would happen in a national emergency when the public is most dependent on trusting the word, judgment, and actions of its elected commander in chief. Now we know. Trump will misfire in the heat of the moment, putting lives at risk, and then devote the considerable heft of the federal government to covering for him, even as people continue to be in harm’s way.
But if there’s a silver lining to Trump’s initial blunder followed by his insistence on doubling and tripling down on it, it’s that his inimitable incompetence and the resultant consequences of it have been laid bare for everyone to see who isn’t a Trump cultist. Donald Trump is clearly not the man you want running your country in the midst of a national crisis.