National Hurricane Center calls for director to be replaced

Published 7:43 pm Friday, July 6, 2007

Nearly half the National Hurricane Center’s employees urged the federal government to replace their boss Thursday, saying they need to return their focus to protecting people from dangerous tropical weather.

A growing number of staffers believe that center Director Bill Proenza has damaged public confidence in their ability to forecast storms. Proenza has repeatedly and publicly criticized the government for failing to provide enough funding and to replace an aging weather satellite.

The 23 staffers who signed the letter say they feel Proenza’s public complaints have dragged them into a debate that has distracted them from their mission.

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“The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake,” the staffers said in the letter. “The staff of the National Hurricane Center would like nothing more than to return its focus to its primary mission of protecting life and property from hazardous tropical weather, and leave the political arena it now finds itself in.”

The center has about 50 employees.

Proenza did not return a message on his cell phone Thursday night after the staffers released the statement. Earlier in the day, he said he spoke to two of the forecasters who had previously called for his ouster, and was confident they would be able to resolve the problems.

He blamed many of the problems on a Commerce Department team sent this week to review the center’s ability to provide accurate and timely information, and whether its management and organizational structure helps achieve its mission.

The team’s report is due by July 20 to the department, which oversees the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the hurricane center’s parent agency.

“Quite frankly the investigative team coming on and all the hoopla has just created a little bit of an atmosphere that a few people in the office said, ‘Let’s get rid of the static,’” Proenza said in a telephone interview.

The letter was from staffers including most of the senior and front-line forecasters who keep the public informed when hurricanes and tropical storms threaten, but also from computer workers and Proenza’s secretary. They say the timing of the center’s problems is bad, as hurricane season is about to enter what are normally its busiest months.

Senior hurricane specialist James Franklin said in a telephone interview that Proenza had misrepresented what would happen if a key satellite called QuikScat failed. The satellite is past its expected lifespan and is on a backup transmitter.

Proenza has said since March that if it failed, forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate. But Franklin said that while the satellite is important, it would not critically hurt forecasts.

Proenza does still have the support of some staffers, although Franklin said most who read the statement agreed with it.

Franklin said he wanted the public to know that the center was still able to give accurate forecasts.

“We have forecasters on duty right now that are doing their jobs. They will continue to do their jobs,” he said.

A telephone message left for NOAA’s Washington office was not immediately returned.