WASHINGTON — Hawaii relies heavily on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — in some ways, for its very safety.
NOAA, which oversees the National Weather Service, is the agency that helps predict and anticipate hurricanes, tsunamis and dangerous floods, issuing warnings that help people prepare or get out of the way.
But in this case, it’s President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the agency, a business executive from Pennsylvania, who is causing a political storm.
Barry Myers, chief executive officer of AccuWeather, a private weather and data services company based in State College, Pennyslvania, has been named by Trump to serve as U.S. Commerce Department Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, a job traditionally held by biologists and climate scientists. This position is usually also called the Administrator of NOAA.
Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s senior senator, has been one of the most vocal critics of the nominee, calling Myers a “questionable choice.”
Myers, the brother of the meteorologist who started the family-owned firm, has a background in business and law. He is definitely not a scientist, as he made clear at a congressional hearing last year.
At the June 8, 2016 hearing, Myers was among five weather industry executives who were questioned by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, about whether they believed that more severe weather patterns were occurring than 100 years ago.
Four of the executives said they believed that more weather-related incidents were happening, but Myers avoided answering.
“Not being a scientist, I’m going to pass on that question,” Myers told Rohrabacher.
In a written statement, Schatz said of Myers, “He is in the vanguard of corporate business interests that seek to undermine the National Weather Service’s ability to do anything other than provide free data and weather models to private companies like his, which then turn around and sell their forecasts.”
Moreover, Schatz said, Myers lacks “the expertise to manage the nation’s leading ocean agency, which oversees commercial and recreational fisheries, coastal land stewardship, and the conservation of endangered marine species, when he does not have any formal scientific education or training.”
His chief of staff, Andrew Winer, an early supporter of President Barack Obama, served on NOAA’s staff.
President Obama’s choice to hold the job was Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius scholarship to pursue environmental protection work.
In 2013, she stepped down and was replaced by Kathryn D. Sullivan, a geologist and NASA astronaut who was the first woman to walk in space. Sullivan left the job in January when Trump was sworn into office.
NOAA is a sprawling agency that includes the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Ocean Service, National Marine Sanctuaries program, climate and ocean acidification research programs, the Coastal Zone Management Program, and implements the Endangered Species Act and operates the nation’s environmental satellites.
Hawaii is covered by NOAA’s Pacific Islands regional office, which is the nation’s largest geographically, reaching from Hawaii to American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. It has more than 600 employees, many of them scientists, and most of them based on Oahu.
Its facilities include two of the nation’s atmospheric observatories, Mauna Loa and American Samoa, which provide information on ozone depletion and air quality. Other local facilities include the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the International Tsunami Information Center, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center and several research vessels.
NOAA also has responsibility for administering four marine monuments, including Papahanaumokuakea. It also includes two national marine sanctuaries — the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa.
AccuWeather has grown steadily since it was founded in 1962 and in 1966, it began providing snow warning services. It provides weather services to a number of commercial clients, including news media, and in 2002, it introduced personal desktop and mobile platforms for receiving weather information.
By 2014, AccuWeather mobile apps were installed on some 1.3 million devices, and the company was receiving 7.7 billion requests for weather information each day. At the congressional hearing last year, Myers said that AccuWeather was now the largest single provider of weather information in Europe.
But the company has sparked controversy over the years.
It makes its money by packaging weather information from academics, other companies and government sources, including the National Weather Service and selling it. AccuWeather officials have sought to prevent the federal government from providing weather information for free when private firms can make a profit selling it instead.
In 2005, company officials encouraged U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum to introduce legislation that would have banned the National Weather Service from providing information free to the public. The bill was widely criticized and failed to win passage.
More recently, privacy advocates warned that AccuWeather was selling customer location information to third parties without telling them. These stories appeared in several online newsites, including ZDNet. AccuWeather at first denied the reports and then said in an update that it addressed “issues” that had been found.
The White House press release announcing Myers’s nomination did not describe what duties Myer would have in his role of what was referred to as “Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere,” and whether he would also hold the post of administrator of NOAA, as Lubchenco and Sullivan did. Schatz’s press release assumed the jobs were one and the same.
The White House statement praised the profitability of AccuWeather under Myer’s tenure as chief executive officer, and said the company has “experienced its highest grossing years, and its largest global web and mobile audience growth” since he took the job in 2007.
In a press release, AccuWeather praised the choice of Myers as a top NOAA official, and said he would serve as both NOAA administrator and under secretary for oceans and atmosphere.
“Barry Myers is an exceptional nominee,” said Joel N. Myers, his brother and the company’s founder, in a statement.
The National Weather Service Employees Organization, on the other hand, has written to Senate leaders criticizing Myers as “wholly unqualified,” pointing to the questions raised by AccWeather’s support of Santorum’s legislation.
A spokesman for NOAA declined to comment about exactly what responsibilities Myers would have at the agency.
“You need to talk to the White House communications office,” said Scott Smullen, deputy director for communications at NOAA.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.