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NOAA confirms cut in Hurricane Hunter funding

Over the past week public comments from the new director of the National Hurricane Center criticizing plans to rename his center and accusing his parent agency of wasting millions of dollars on a public relations campaign while cutting vital research funding, were followed by the unexpected departure of two top weather service officials. Now following these public accusations and earlier reports that the new budget contains no money for research flights, NOAA has confirmed that it is cutting funding to the famous 'Hurricane Hunters' based in Tampa, FL.

From the St. Petersbug Times:

Federal officials plan to significantly reduce the number of "hurricane hunter" flights from Tampa's MacDill Air Force base this year, even though predictions call for a busy hurricane season.

Crews will fly fewer hours because some of their missions can be combined for efficiency, said Philip Kenul of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For example, some reconnaissance flights in which pilots aim directly into the eye of a storm can be combined with other flights aimed at research purposes. That way, the crews can accomplish two goals with one flight, he said.

Safety will not be compromised, Kenul said.

"We're just trying to be a little bit smarter about the way we spend federal dollars, " he said.

But Kenul's comments came only days after the new director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Proenza, criticized the NOAA for failing to put enough money into research programs and equipment.

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said Friday he would like to know more about the reduction in hours.

The situation at the National Weather Service (NWS) is continuing to heat up amid a move from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) plan to rename the agency and accusations from multiple officials at the hurricane center that NOAA is wasting millions of dollars while depriving vital research and operations. Against the backdrop of building controversy over the rebranding proposal, today NOAA announced the resignation of two top NWS employees.

From The Miami Herald:

The top two leaders of the National Weather Service announced their departures Friday, two days after the director of the National Hurricane Center blasted the federal overseers of both agencies.

David Johnson, who served as director of the National Weather Service since January 2004, said he would step down on June 30. John E. Jones Jr., the service's deputy director since 1998, will retire the same day after 35 years in the government.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration controls the National Weather Service, which in turn controls the National Hurricane Center.

NOAA recently has been under fire from Bill Proenza, the hurricane center's director, and many others for its multimillion-dollar promotional efforts and its plan to diminish the name recognition and absorb the budgets of its component agencies.

Johnson was not available for comment, but he wrote somewhat vaguely in an email to employees that ``it is now time for me to move on to meet a new calling -- and for the NWS to move to the next, inevitable new phase of the change process.''

Jones said his retirement was planned long in advance and was not related to any ill feelings between NOAA and its agencies.

''I think NOAA has a great relationship with the National Weather Service,'' Jones said. ``We're part of the team.''

Greg Romano, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, said both departures were unrelated to sharp comments made Wednesday by Proenza.

NOAA recently has been making moves to renamed the weather service and other daughter agencies with the prefix "NOAA ..." leading to the new names "NOAA Weather Service," "NOAA Hurricane Center," etc. NOAA claims that the renaming plan is a positive way to further unity amongst its daughter agencies and promote NOAA's role is weather forecasting activities. However, not everyone seems happy with the plan and this is not the first time the proposal has been put forth.

After the success and publicity that the hurricane center and weather service gathered following Katrina in 2005, NOAA executives ordered the hurricane center to remove all NWS logos on their products and replace them with NOAA logos. Then director of the hurricane center, Max Mayfield, refused to do so amidst controversy within the government. After a House appropriations subcommittee chair contacted the Department of Commerce, NOAA's parent agency, the proposal was withdrawn. The committee stated that "these changes are unnecessary and that renaming could lead to confusion among users of long standing programs and services with substantial name recognition."

The proposal from NOAA to role the weather service and its budget into the greater NOAA appropirations has lit off a shower of email protests within the meteorological community. Protests are also focused around comments made by Bill Proenza, Director of the National Hurricane Center, claiming NOAA is spending $4 million on bicentential celebration at the same time that is has cut $700,000 from hurricane research. Others within the weather community are pointing out that President Bush's proposed budget leaves no funding for hurricane research flights.

From the Miami Herald:

Bill Proenza, who took the hurricane center post in January, said top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are spending $4 million on a ''bogus'' 200-year NOAA anniversary celebration.
NHC director Bill Proenza

That celebration is part of a broader campaign to publicize NOAA and its leaders, Proenza and other critics said, while diminishing the identity of its best-known components, the National Weather Service and the hurricane center.

Meanwhile, Proenza said, NOAA has cut $700,000 from a crucial hurricane research program and allowed other important initiatives to go unfunded, but it wants to spend money to change the widely recognized center's name to the ``NOAA Hurricane Center.''

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Proenza and former hurricane center director Max Mayfield said, NOAA even ordered them to remove the National Weather Service logo from official tracking maps and retain only the NOAA logo. They refused.

''It's getting to the point where I cannot tolerate this,'' Proenza told The Miami Herald when asked about critical comments from emergency managers about NOAA's budget priorities and its public relations campaigns.

The statements from him and other high-ranking officials suggest that potentially disruptive battles are under way in the sprawling NOAA bureaucracy that Americans depend on for crucial information about hurricanes and other natural phenomena.


Proenza said the issue is of vital public interest because it touches on important funding issues. ''What's happening is scary,'' he said.

If the National Weather Service and similar operations lose their identities, he said, their funding will be absorbed and possibly diluted by NOAA and they will have to battle for every dollar.

NOAA's annual budget is around $4 billion, Franklin said.

''If NOAA achieves a strong presence in the eyes of the people who use its varied services, the agency will be more successful in budget matters,'' he said.

The hurricane center's annual budget is $6.3 million, and Proenza has said he needs a lot more.


NOAA officials in Washington rejected the criticisms, saying the anniversary campaign is costing $1.5 million over two years and helps explain their mission to the public.

Anson Franklin, NOAA's director of communications, also said the agency has no intention of destroying the National Weather Service, though it does intend to bring it, the hurricane center and similar agencies more firmly under the NOAA ``corporate identity.''

Proenza, a 40-year veteran of the weather service, has a long reputation as a candid critic of NOAA.

Still, he shocked the bureaucracy last month when he told The Miami Herald -- during the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, his public debut as hurricane director -- that Congress and NOAA were bleeding forecasters of resources they need to protect Americans.

This week, the escalation of his criticism came -- at times -- while a public information officer from NOAA headquarters in Washington stood at Proenza's side.

Is Proenza, 62, risking the loss of his new job?

''I was told that NOAA doesn't want to muzzle its leaders,'' he said. ``And they don't expect me to lie.''

But he acknowledged that he needs to be careful.

''If I'm going to be effective in what I'm trying to do for this entire hurricane program,'' he said, ``I can't allow myself to be fired.''

What will this transition look like? NOAA has a well-hidden page showing the proposed changes to all of their website graphics. Below are the proposed new website banners for the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center. If you would like to leave feedback for NOAA and let them know how you feel, please visit their obscure page of the changes and let them hear your voice.

More on the web:
2 top weather service officials leave - Miami Herald
Hurricane chief: NOAA wasted millions - Associated Press
Storm director says feds wasting millions - Miami Herald
'Hurricane Hunter' flights cut - St. Petersburg Times