President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attend a briefing on Hurricane Dorian, Aug. 29, 2019.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy The White House.
If you presented a U.S. map with the states marked but unlabeled to 100 people chosen randomly on the streets of Queens, New York, you might be shocked at the small percentage who could identify Alabama on the first try.
Unless you come from New York City, that is. If you do, the geographic ignorance in that borough won’t surprise you at all.
New Yorkers from all corners of the city are famously uninformed not only of how their fellow Americans live, but where. I know this because I come from New York City – I was raised in the Bronx – and I married a woman from Queens. When I announced plans to go to college in Montana, often the first question I got from my fellow New Yorkers was “Where is that?” (Sometimes, however, it was “Do they have telephones?” This was in 1974.)
Give President Trump credit: He comes from Queens, yet he knows where Alabama is. He loves Alabama. More than in many other places, people in Alabama seem to love him back, possibly because he knows where to find them.
Alabama helped Trump stir up quite a storm (pun intended but with apologies) after he tweeted a warning that the state should be on guard against approaching Hurricane Dorian. Although Dorian was, in fact, approaching someplace at that time, that place was not Alabama.
There was a stage earlier in the storm’s development when some computer models did take it in the direction of Alabama. This was at a point where it was uncertain exactly when, where and how sharply the tropical cyclone would make a typical turn toward the north and then to the east. But since Alabama lay beyond the five-day “cone of uncertainty” that the National Hurricane Center issues when tracking and forecasting Atlantic tropical cyclones, Trump could only infer that if the storm eventually moved that direction, Alabama might be affected.
He would not have been alone in those projections at the time. When the storm’s future movement was uncertain, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all 67 of the state’s counties. The northwesternmost six of those counties border – you guessed it! – Alabama. They are closer to New Orleans than to Miami, and they share New Orleans’ time zone too. In reality, Dorian never came anywhere near those western Florida counties. Yet DeSantis has not taken any flak for putting his entire state on alert. In fact, he has been widely praised for his calm and collaborative leadership in preparing for emergency conditions that ended up happening elsewhere.
Of course, DeSantis did not appear in his executive office with a hand-modified hurricane map showing those western counties, as well as part of neighboring Alabama, in what I’d call the “cone of even more uncertainty.” Or maybe a cone of pure fantasy, because by the time the picture was taken, the storm was clearly headed elsewhere.
It was Trump who, rather ridiculously, appeared with that map, presented to reporters by his homeland security chief. This is a president who has learned to identify his 50 states, but never quite learned to say “I stand corrected.”
He also doesn’t do nuance well. Then again, neither do many reporters who cover things like weather and climate predictions, or many of us who listen to those predictions. Weather forecasts and computer models are all about probabilities and margins of error. When a forecaster says “Rain is likely, with a probability of precipitation of 60%,” she is also saying that there is a 40% chance that it will not rain at all in that location at that time, or that if it does rain, the amount could be too small to measure. That’s how weather forecasts work. But to most reporters and to most of the rest of us, that forecast translates into simply: “It’s going to rain.” And then, about 40% of the time, it doesn’t.
In the aftermath of Trump’s map-aided appearance in the Oval Office, The New York Times wrote about the flap that ensued when the Birmingham, Alabama, office of the National Weather Service disputed “the president’s warning that Alabama ‘will most likely be hit’ by the hurricane despite forecasts to the contrary.” Despite the Times’ use of direct quotation marks, that is not exactly what the president had said.
In his now-controversial Sept. 1 tweet, the president said: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already Category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!”
I was in Florida completing preparations and awaiting the storm at that time. Dorian barely brushed us. It did ultimately skirt the Atlantic coast, bringing increasing impacts as it moved from Georgia to North Carolina, where it made its only landfall on the U.S. mainland. This outcome was within the set of possibilities that hurricane forecasters predicted at that time; the older models showing a track farther west had been superseded. The president’s tweet was apparently based on an outdated recollection of the earlier cone of uncertainty, probably extended beyond its time limits because presidents have to work on longer timelines.
Hurricanes regularly strike Alabama, mainly coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. They regularly strike the southern Atlantic Coast states, too. Sometimes they do move across all the states Trump mentioned, but very seldom are the impacts severe across that entire path. Most everyone who lives in that hurricane-prone region knows as much. Trump could have just said “I stand corrected” about his untimely reference to Alabama, but then again, just across the border in Florida the state of emergency was still in effect. We don’t let our guard down until hurricanes have moved on. That’s how it is in hurricane country.
The rest of the story of this flap is basically nonsense. Days after Alabama meteorologists said flatly that the storm was not coming to their state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a statement declaring that this was “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.” In other words, there was a theoretical chance the storm might still have produced a raindrop someplace in Alabama. It might also have decided to go to Indiana, Iowa or Montana. But any forecaster would have said at that time, flatly, this was not going to happen. The probabilities were low enough to be rounded to zero.
Trump’s controversial tweet turned out to be essentially correct in its larger point, albeit imprecise in its generality. The impacts in North Carolina were far greater than had originally been expected. The impacts in Florida were less. There were none in Alabama. The actual definition of a hurricane warning is that hurricane conditions are expected someplace in the warned area, not everyplace in the warned area. For a layperson who has a lot on his plate besides the weather, Trump didn’t do too badly.
As far as the rest of this tale goes – the calming tweet from Birmingham forecasters, the disavowal of that tweet from Washington, D.C., and the supposed threats to fire people who were never fired, reported by people who were never named – it is all what you might call a tempest in a teapot. It will all be forgotten by the next time we over-prepare for a big blow.