On Wednesday, it appears that the White House attempted to retroactively justify a tweet that President Donald Trump issued over the weekend in which he warned, erroneously, that Alabama would be in the path of Hurricane Dorian.
In a White House video released Wednesday, Trump displays a modified National Hurricane Center “cone of uncertainty” forecast, dated 11 a.m. on Thursday, indicating Alabama would be in the path. The graphic appears to have been altered with a marker to indicate a risk that the storm would move into Alabama from Florida.
“We had actually, our original chart was that it was going to be hit, hitting Florida directly,” Trump said as he displayed the graphic from Thursday, which now includes an added appendage extending the cone into Alabama. “That was the original chart,” Trump said. “It could’ve, uh, was going towards the Gulf,” Trump explained in the video.
When asked about the altered hurricane forecast chart during a White House event on opioids Wednesday afternoon, Trump said his briefings included a “95 percent chance probability” that Alabama would be hit. When asked whether the chart had been drawn on, Trump said: “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Trump’s tweet on Sunday came as Dorian was hitting the Bahamas as a high-end Category 5 hurricane, and it sparked enough public alarm that it prompted the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, to bluntly tweet 20 minutes later: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
Photos posted on the White House’s Flickr site reveal that Trump did receive the correct briefing on Thursday from acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head administrator Neil Jacobs, in which the National Hurricane Center’s forecast called for Dorian to hit Florida. Alabama was never included in any National Hurricane Center forecast cone for Dorian, though it was included for a time in a map on the probability of tropical storm conditions, but that showed a low likelihood of that outcome.
It is not clear whether Trump was responsible for altering the forecast chart, but the modified photo appeared to show Alabama in Dorian’s eventual path. The National Hurricane Center’s text bulletin at that time included Florida in its discussion five times, but it did not mention Alabama. Instead, the office urged caution from residents in “the Bahamas, Florida, and elsewhere in the southeastern United States.”
When Trump tweeted his original warning to Alabama, the concurrent National Hurricane Center forecast called for Dorian to pass off the Georgia coast, with the center of Dorian’s expected track passing 300 miles east of the Alabama border. The far western extent of the cone was located more than 150 miles east of the Alabama border.
NOAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the altered forecast map, which carries the agency’s logo. The White House did not return requests for comment for this report.
In a Wednesday evening tweet, Trump defended his Alabama warning and use of the altered map by pointing to raw computer model data provided to state and local governments on Aug. 28, a day before his storm briefing with NOAA and four days before his Alabama tweet. The data shows the majority of models called for Hurricane Dorian to make landfall well southeast of Alabama, most likely in Florida. By the time of his controversial tweet Sunday, the projections on that map showing potential impacts on Alabama had long been ruled out.
Altering official government weather forecasts isn’t just a cause for concern — it’s actually illegal. Per 18 U.S. Code 2074, which addresses false weather reports, “Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather conditions falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the Government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both.”
That law applies to what is now known as NOAA’s National Weather Service, which contains the National Hurricane Center.
Video: President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Sept. 4, held up a map of Hurricane Dorian featuring an apparently marker-drawn circle to falsely extend its projected path.(The Washington Post)