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Storm brewing at National Hurricane Center

Following the ongoing controversy revolving around the National Hurricane Center (NHC), a perfect storm seems ready to threaten Director Bill Proenza's job. If you haven't been following the ongoing controversy it is hard to know where to start to explain things. Over the last couple of months the new director of NHC has publicly criticized his bosses over budget cuts and perceived wasteful public relations spending.

In response Proenza received a formal reprimand which spurred some powerful politicians to line up behind him. I personally believe that everything Proenza is arguing for is perfectly valid and for that he has my support. However, the political situation has changed over the past couple of days to the point where Proenza's support is eroding not because he speaks the truth, but because he speaks it with a volume that is drawing backlash and scorn upon the hurricane center. Monday the situation reached a new climax when a surprise inspection team from Department of Commerce / National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) visited NHC to check in on Proenza.

From The Miami Herald:

A five-member team from Washington, including a lawyer who specializes in personnel matters, conducted a snap inspection Monday of the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade to determine if it can fulfill its mission under current management.

The unannounced visit came in the wake of serial controversies stirred by Bill Proenza, the center's new director, who has been sharply critical of his superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, for the first time, one of Proenza's hurricane forecasters expressed public concern about some of Proenza's actions since he took the job in January.

Lixion Avila, a lead forecaster and a center employee for more than 20 years, said he believes Proenza meant well but unintentionally has undermined public faith in hurricane forecasts.

Proenza has complained about budget shortfalls, what he called a multimillion-dollar ''bogus'' NOAA anniversary celebration and the imminent demise of a key satellite.

He has been careful to say that those issues herald future -- rather than current -- problems, but some people have not grasped the distinction, Avila said.

'I go to the Publix supermarket and they know me and they say, `What's going on at the hurricane center? You can't make a forecast anymore,' '' Avila said. ``I have to tell everybody that I can make a good forecast.

''I tell you this because I already told Bill this,'' Avila said. ``And I want it clear that he didn't do any of this out of malice.''

Several others at the hurricane center harbor similar concerns, though another contingent supports Proenza and worries that NOAA is preparing to oust him -- even as the hurricane season is under way.

Then today more NHC Senior Forecasters seemed to turn on Proenza, possibly out of fear of Washington.

From The Miami Herald:

Three senior forecasters at the National Hurricane Center called Tuesday for the ouster of recently appointed director Bill Proenza, saying he has damaged public confidence in their forecasts, fractured morale and lost their support.

''I don't think that Bill can continue here,'' said James Franklin, one of five senior forecasters at the center. ``I don't think he can be an effective leader.''

Two others -- Richard Pasch and Rick Knabb -- told The Miami Herald that they concur.

''We need a change of leadership here at the hurricane center,'' Pasch said. ``It's pretty much as simple as that.''

The open rebellion flared as an ''assessment team'' dispatched by Proenza's superiors in Washington spent a second day at the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade County. The team is trying to determine whether forecasters can fulfill their mission under the outspoken and controversial director.

Some forces expressed support for Proenza, but with pressure intensifying from within and without, Proenza's grip on the $150,000-a-year job he accepted just six months ago seemed increasingly at risk.

He said late Tuesday that he will not resign and blamed the center's morale problems on ''Washington harassment,'' a reference to a letter of reprimand he received last month and the unannounced inspection by five federal officials, including a lawyer who specializes in personnel matters.

''It is my intention to continue to be the director of the National Hurricane Center and not in any way hesitate to do what I need to do,'' said Proenza, 62, a weather-service forecaster and manager for more than 40 years. ``We are ready to carry out our mission and we will move forward.''

....

''The public debate has been extremely one-sided,'' said Franklin, who has been at the center since 1999 and with NOAA since 1982. ``Bill is viewed as a hero in the media for speaking up against NOAA management and he is portrayed as having the support of his staff.

''But the hurricane specialists, by and large, do not agree with much of what he has done,'' Franklin said.

In any event, as the drama played out, the climate at the hurricane center turned stormy. Some lower-ranking members of the staff support Proenza, and shouting matches between the two camps erupted Tuesday, several people said.

Indeed there are very complex political dynamics at play in this situation. Nobody seems to be arguing against the validity of Proenza's claims. However, the Senior Forecasters seem afraid of the consequences of reductions in funding for aircraft reconnaissance in favor of new satellites. I personally work in research aviation, and therefore am biased toward aircraft, but still strongly support new remote sensing capabilities. Without QuickScat, we never would have been able to tell that the tropical wave out in the Atlantic right now has developed a surface circulation. In these cases QuickScat is invaluable.

There should not have to be a choice made between aircraft and satellites. Aircraft are expensive to operate but provide a much better source of information for storms that are close to shore, and therefore within range. Beyond the range of aircraft, satellites are a critical tool in tracking the development of tropical systems and providing data to aid in their forecast. This should not be an "either / or" situation as both are critical tools.

I would like to stress that it is only the Senior Forecasters and a small subset of the Hurricane Specialists who seem to be rebelling against Proenza. Most of the technical staff still support the embattled director. The shouting match today in the Hurricane Center underscores that Proenza maintains very strong support within the unit and that Proenza's directives are being met with resistance from longtime forecasters.

I personally am beginning to suspect that even deep politics could be at play. We've already discussed the shouting matches that have taken place within the center, but consider recent statements made by Lixion Avila, a Senior Forecaster at NHC, in the previously linked articles:

From The Miami Herald:

The inspectors are due back at the hurricane center today, and Avila, who was not in the office Monday, said he expected to be interviewed.

What will he say if asked about Proenza's future?

Avila: 'My answer to them will be, `You never asked me when you put him in, so don't ask me if he should be removed.' ''

...

Forecaster Lixion Avila, who ignited the public phase of the rebellion Monday night in comments to The Miami Herald that were critical of Proenza, said Tuesday that he was not ready to join the call for Proenza's departure.

''I've lost a little bit of faith in him,'' Avila said, ``but I don't want to be part of his removal or support him to stay.''

...

''If I'm the director of the hurricane center, I would not spend my time fighting for QuikScat,'' Avila said.

``I would be fighting to make sure that the reconnaissance planes are always there.''

Why would someone as senior as Avila diplomatically take no stance regarding Proenza's future yet still make very public "if I were the director" comments to the press? I have to wonder if Avila wanted the director's job himself and is trying to position himself to come out on top after this storm has settled. Unfortunately, this whole situation rings of the Turkish proverb: "If you speak the truth, have one foot in the stirrup."


Posted by Bryan Woods | Permalink