May 8, 2020

Trump's Hurricane Sharpie Map Was A Warning Flare For The Federal Coronavirus Response


We hit the point of no return the moment Donald Trump took his Sharpie to a days-old hurricane forecast in the Oval Office.

It seems like we've passed a thousand of these inflection points over the last three years.

He issued a controversial pardon while Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas because people were already watching the news and his ratings would be higher.

His administration slow-walked aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The president himself lied about how much money the territory got from the federal government, then responded to criticism by saying Puerto Rico didn't sufficiently show its appreciation to him.

He stood amid the charred ruins of Paradise, California, and said the fire might have been prevented if only the state had raked the forests more often.

So it seemed like just another eyeroll when the president held up a National Hurricane Center forecast map so freshly altered by the ink of his pen that the black semicircle protruding from the expert forecast shimmered a bit under the lights of the cameras.


Three days earlier, the president had erroneously warned that Alabama (among other states) would be hit "much harder than anticipated" by scale-topping Hurricane Dorian. No forecast on September 1, 2019, placed the hurricane's projected path near Alabama. It seemed like a normal mistake he'd make and meteorologists quickly corrected the president's misinformation. The National Weather Service office in Birmingham even tweeted that the storm would steer clear of Alabama.

As it turns out, NWS Birmingham was unaware of the president's tweet at the time of their correction. They only reacted to the onslaught of phone calls and messages initiated by the president's false claim. The corrections incensed the president, who spent the next couple of days digging-in and doubling-down on his assertion that Alabama was at risk no matter how much the experts said otherwise.

The president's mistake consumed the White House, which suddenly found itself more concerned with Trump's image than the category five hurricane churning perilously close to Florida's coast. The issue seemed to come to a head on September 4 when Trump manually extended the cone of uncertainty on a days-old hurricane forecast to make it look like he was right all along, proudly holding up the altered map for cameras to see.

He presented outdated and falsified information to the public as a scale-topping hurricane loomed near the country's coast. That wasn't even the worst of it.

We'd soon find out that there was an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to force NOAA and the NWS to back up the president's faulty claims, including threats to fire NOAA leadership if they didn't issue a statement denouncing their own experts for contradicting the president's tweet. NOAA complied and issued an unsigned statement.

That fiasco—that wholesale demolition of expertise for the benefit of the president's personal image—foreshadowed the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Image Source: New York Times
Today, the death toll from the coronavirus in the United States stands at 75,000 people and climbing, and it's likely that number is an undercount. That's a staggering number. It's more than double the average number of people who die of the flu every year. It's higher than the deadliest year on record for car crashes in the United States (56,278 in 1972). The coronavirus will likely register as one of the top causes of death in the United States in 2020, and it's only May.

And at every step of this pandemic—from the first confirmed cases on American soil to governors prematurely reopening their states—things were made worse by valuing political whims over expert assessments.

The first heads-up about the impending pandemic reached the upper echelons of the Trump administration in January. Warnings grew more dire through February as the virus spiraled out of control in other countries and it was clear the United States would follow a similar trajectory. The United States encountered persistent testing delays that compounded the crisis and let the virus spread undetected for weeks. 

No warning struck as hard as one that came during a briefing on February 25, 2020, when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a vaccine expert with the Centers for Disease Control, warned that it was a matter of when—not if—a bad outbreak of coronavirus would start spreading in the United States. Dr. Messonnier punctuated her remarks by describing how she warned her own family that the virus' spread would lead to "significant disruption of our lives." 

An already-plummeting stock market fell even harder on news reports of Dr. Messonnier's warnings, hurting Trump's prized metric for gauging his success as president. The Trump administration said the doctor spoke out of turn, and the president threatened to fire her if she didn't walk back her warnings.

The following day, Trump insisted during a press conference that the 15 confirmed cases at that point would "be down close to zero" pretty soon.

One day after that, Trump said the virus would go away on its own. "It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear."

Trump called criticism of his administration's coronavirus response "the new hoax" during a rally on February 28, 2020.

The country saw its first confirmed coronavirus death on February 29, 2020, though it's likely the first actual death occurred weeks earlier.

Case counts quickly multiplied as testing ability came online throughout the country, finally giving us a glimpse of the extent of the community spread that had occurred before most communities took mitigating actions.

On March 9, as states began to roll out their stay-at-home orders, Trump (now, falsely) tweeted that the flu was deadlier than the coronavirus:


As the number of cases exploded through the middle of March, most states instituted stay-at-home orders of varying strictness, pausing the national economy to the tune of millions of jobs and trillions of dollars. This sudden economic crash cut at the heart of Trump's reelection pitch.

Trump's daily coronavirus press conferences, which began as an effort to stabilize the economy, slowly turned into venting sessions and virtual campaign rallies as the days wore on.

He openly bragged about the ratings for his briefings. He tweeted on five different occasions that his coronavirus briefings got bigger ratings than The Bachelor (March 29, March 29 (again), April 8, April 9, and April 21). He only started reining in the televised events after he openly wondered if doctors should inject patients with disinfectant to cleanse their systems of the virus.

Flouting his own government's suggestions that states stay the course until there's a significant decrease in serious cases, the president started pressuring states to reopen for the benefit of the economy. "Reopen" protests broke out in some states. Pictures and footage from the rallies showed an unmistakable trend: the vast majority of protesters wore Trump hats, Trump shirts, waved Trump flags, or drove vehicles adorned with stickers and signs advertising the president's reelection campaign.


The president appeared to take notice that his own supporters dominated these protests. Trump began April 17 by tweeting "LIBERATE MINNESOTA," "LIBERATE MICHIGAN," and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA," firing the starter gun for supporters to congregate in each state's capital and demand that their governor allow life to return to normal even as the virus continues to spread. Men carrying rifles wandered the halls of Michigan's capitol building as elected officials attended a legislative session wearing bulletproof vests. A day later, Trump tweeted that Michigan's governor should relent to their demands.

Now, as the death toll surpasses each bracket Trump predicted we'd stay under for him to have done a good job, reports indicate that Trump and his surrogates are preparing to publicly question the veracity of the death toll and claim that it's overinflated so states and hospital systems can grab federal dollars and make the president look bad at the same time.

He downplayed the virus because he thought it would hurt him. He threatened to fire an expert because he thought her warnings imperiled him. He egged on the protests because the attendees supported him. He's on his way to questioning the death toll because it looks bad on him.

He altered a hurricane forecast and upended NOAA during a disaster to save face over a simple mistake he made in a tweet one morning.

A category five hurricane became him.

It seemed easy to brush it off at first because hey, it's just the weather, right?

The bad weather served as a warning of what came next.

[Top ImageTwitter/@WhiteHouse]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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