On Leave, Hurricane Center's Director Is in the Eye of the Storm

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stormy weather is usually outside the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But it's inside the center for this year's hurricane season.

The center's director, Bill Proenza, was sent away "on leave" Monday after six months on the job. He was squeezed out from the top, by unhappy bosses in Washington, and from the bottom, by 23 employees who led a mutiny.

The bureaucratic cyclone that swept through the National Hurricane Center serves as a powerful reminder of how senior government executives can end up being treated as outsiders by their staffs, especially when they are raising difficult issues involving science and budgets.

How the hurricane center, one of the government's premier agencies, collapsed into infighting probably won't be fully known until an assessment team sent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the center, turns in a report this month.

Proenza, 62, was the first director who had not been promoted from within the center or the hurricane research labs. But he had worked more than 35 years at the National Weather Service, most recently as director of the southern region, the part of the country where most hurricanes roar ashore. He also started his career in the mid-1960s at the hurricane center in tropical meteorology.

Hugh Willoughby, a professor at Florida International University and a former hurricane research director at NOAA, describes the National Hurricane Center as "a wonderful organization" and "also a kind of clubby organization with its own way of doing things."

It operates through "a collegial management style" where employees speak up and take charge of issues in their areas of expertise, Willoughby said. Still, he added, "an organization ought to be able to handle having an outsider come in."

The heart of the dispute involves Proenza's criticism of his NOAA superiors for moving slowly on the replacement of an aging weather satellite and for spending money to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's coastal survey. He also questioned research funding priorities.

Proenza suggested that the satellite's demise would increase errors in hurricane tracking forecasts, a view that brought disagreement from hurricane center scientists and concerns that he would talk about such an issue in public.

On Thursday, some of the center's senior hurricane specialists, including Lixion Avila, James Franklin, and Richard Pasch, and other center staff members issued a statement asserting that "the effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake" and called for a new director.

Anson Franklin, the NOAA spokesman, said an effort is underway to figure out how best to replace the satellite. He noted that funding for the celebration was not taken from weather or hurricane budgets and that research priorities had been established by a National Weather Service panel before Proenza became director.

But many experts do not think the NOAA has done a good job of managing satellite programs and other resources, and some hurricane center scientists are worried that Congress may step in and dictate or modify funding priorities.

Proenza said yesterday that the NOAA has asked him to keep "a low profile" while on leave but stressed that his comments and efforts were aimed at improving hurricane forecasts. He said he awaits the findings of an assessment team sent into the center by the NOAA administrator, Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr.

The NOAA has selected Edward N. Rappaport, the center's deputy director, as acting director. As the deputy director since 2000, he has coordinated the center's daily work and budget and overseen the work of hurricane specialists.

Some members of Congress have expressed concern about the turmoil at the hurricane center and the plans to replace the weather satellite, which has stayed in operation longer than expected. "The administration needs to fix this mess, and fix it now," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said.

Senate Panel Approves Raise

Federal employees would receive a 3.5 percent pay raise next year under a spending bill approved yesterday by the Senate Appropriations financial services and general government subcommittee.

The House version of the bill also includes the raise, and the House and Senate are backing a 3.5 percent raise for military personnel, too. The White House had recommended a 3 percent raise for both groups next year.

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