- James Cullen
- More than a week after Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Bahamas and parts of the East Coast, a debate rages on: Over Alabama.
- In a conflict dubbed Sharpiegate, President Trump argued with the National Weather Service over whether or not Alabama was ever in the hurricane’s path.
- This week, it was revealed that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was reportedly tapped to fire employees that disagree with the White House over the storm.
- Meanwhile, in Alabama – where Trump enjoys higher approval ratings than in any other state – residents are split on what actually happened.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A week after Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas before moving on to the Carolinas, Alabama – a state which saw no impact from the storm – is still what everyone’s talking about.
Residents from across the political spectrum around the state have offered mixed responses to being thrust into they eye of the storm coverage. But for many, the controversy speaks to the deep divide and politicization of even the most mundane aspect of daily life: The weather.
This week, the dispute has expanded to include a war of words between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) following reports that the Trump administration pressured the NOAA to back his claim that Alabama was in Dorian’s path.
On September 6, the NOAA released a statement disavowing the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, excoriating them for tweeting information that the NOAA claimed was “inconsistent with probabilities available from the best forecast products at the time.”
In a move that seems surreal at best and authoritarian at worst, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was even reportedly directed to investigate and potentially fire employees that disagreed with the White House’s take on the storm.
And in Alabama, residents are split over whether Trump was right or wrong – and who’s actually to blame.
It all started when Trump picked with a weather service
The controversy started on Sunday, September 1, after the National Weather Service office in Birmingham tweeted that Dorian would have no impact in Alabama, contradicting a statement made by the Trump Administration.
— NWS Birmingham (@NWSBirmingham) September 1, 2019
On the podcast Weatherbrains, hosted by Birmingham meteorologist James Spann, Kevin Laws, science and operations officer for the Birmingham division of the weather service, said that it was locals, not the president, that prompted the tweet.
“We had no idea that the president had made a statement, we were actually responding to the phone blowing up,” from Alabama residents who were worried about potential effects from the storm, he said.
- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
These concerns were echoed by Spann, who said he started receiving concerned phone calls from people asking “do I need to pick up my elderly parents who live in Gulf Shores today” and “do I need to cancel a surgery that we had planned in the big hospital in Mobile.”
The controversy might have blown over, but the Trump administration responded to the Birmingham weather service’s tweet with a Sharpie-altered hurricane map that included Alabama in the projected path of the storm.
Suddenly, Sharpiegate was born.
Alabama found itself in a storm of controversy, if not an actual one
In Birmingham, Joseph Baker, who runs the popular Facebook group I Believe in Birmingham, quipped, “We were drawn into this whole affair,” referencing the altered map. “We were in the eye of a storm that never hit.”
Yet Baker told Insider he was worried that the politicization of the weather was a net negative.
“In matters of fact we need todefer=”defer”to the experts,” he said, casting his support to both the National Weather Service and local meteorologist Spann.
These sentiments were echoed by Baker’s fiancée, Kathleen McAlister, who offered that Birmingham was a “bright blue dot in a really red state,” and that their opinions were certainly not shared statewide.
For Trump supporters, politicization seems to be the salient issue as well, especially when it comes to the treatment of the President by the press.
Ryan Smith, a senior government and economics teacher at Hueytown High School and a supporter of the president, maintains that “the pettiness of the press gets ridiculous,” while also noting that Trump “could shut his mouth – he gives them a lot of fodder.”
- James Cullen
Concerning the track of Dorian, however, he was supportive of President Trump. “They all spoke too soon,” Smith said of the weather service. “They didn’t know where it was going.” A former resident of Mobile, Smith maintained that he had seen far too many hurricanes to ever feel completely safe, and had endured four evacuations during his senior year of high school alone.
Smith hoped that the president would remain resolute in his convictions, but turn his social media over to an aide.
“He could stand to lose his Twitter account and put it in the hands of a professional,” Smith opined. “That’s what most people do.”
Local Republican officials think CNN is to blame – not Trump
Jeannie Faherty, the Communications Director for the Alabama Republican Party, believes that both the National Weather Service and the president “did what they needed to do” to keep Alabama safe.
“Anyone who has been through a hurricane or tornado season in Alabama understands the importance of public safety,” he continued. When asked if both President Trump and the weather service had the welfare of the citizens of Alabama in mind, she responded, “Absolutely.”
The president’s approval ratings are higher in Alabama than any other state, and Faherty thinks that’s a testament to the fact that “he listens to [Alabamans] and their problems.” She also disputed that it was the Trump administration who was politicizing the storm, and instead blamed CNN for the kerfuffle.
“CNN had the wrong name on Alabama on the map,” she said referring to a September 5th hurricane map showing Alabama labeled as Mississippi.
- James Cullen
CNN quickly corrected the map, but White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham dug up a screenshot days later to tease them for it anyway. The network admitted to the mistake, but not before taking a shot at the administration, tweeting “Thanks, Stephanie. Yes, we made a mistake (which we fixed in less than 30 seconds). And now we are admitting it. You all should try it sometime.”
Tweet Embed: //twitter.com/mims/statuses/1169657747782041602?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw Thanks, Stephanie. Yes, we made a mistake (which we fixed in less than 30 seconds). And now we are admitting it. You all should try it sometime.
To Faherty, this is typical of the media which, in her opinion, is often dismissive of the president. She also believes that is why Trump is so effective on Twitter: He takes his message directly to his supporters and bypasses the traditional news outlets.
More than anything, Faherty believes that the continued discussion around Dorian and Alabama is due to “a slow news cycle.” As for the reports that Secretary Ross pressured NOAA to act against the NWS, she suggested only that Ross was trying to depoliticize the process.
Some Alabamians were focused on the actual weather, not the politics
Many Alabamians, regardless of political affiliation, didn’t put much stock in the dispute, noting that local meteorologists would continue to be their trusted sources. Ethan Curry, a cabinet maker from Chelsea said, “James Spann is the man.”
He also found an element of humor in the whole affair.
“To see weather politicized, to me, is crazy,” Curry said. “But I didn’t see it until after people were already making fun of it.” Referring to Trump’s altered hurricane map, Curry said, “It was a meme at that point.”
- James Cullen
In Mobile, where the president’s support ranks among the strongest in the state, Matt Golden, a Trump supporter and owner of Loda Bier Garten, is always wary of big storms threatening the Gulf. September – the most active month in the Atlantic’s hurricane season – is also the slowest month business-wise for Loda.
Golden admitted he hadn’t been following Sharpiegate. Instead, he was focused on future storm systems.
For Golden, “Sunburn and hurricanes are the price you pay for living in paradise.”
- Read more:
- Trump reportedly pushed senior staff into making the NOAA defend his false claim that Hurricane Dorian was forecast to hit Alabama
- A brief history of how Trump came up with the false claim that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama
- The head of the National Weather Service led a standing ovation for staff who corrected Trump after he said Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama