Hurricane Center's Chief Lost Support of Bosses and Staff

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bill Proenza was on the job as director of the National Hurricane Center for less than a week when he delivered his first warning about the looming loss of a crucial forecasting tool: a rare satellite that measures winds during storms.

At a closed-door meeting in early January, Proenza told his bosses, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., that hurricane forecasts could suffer if the satellite known as QuikSCAT suddenly died. It was already more than three years past its life expectancy and running on a backup transmitter.

"We were on borrowed time, and I needed their support immediately," Proenza recalled. "But I got no response. Nothing."

It was the beginning of Proenza's six-month, highly public push to draw attention to gaps in the nation's hurricane warning system, a push that angered his bosses, alienated much of his staff -- and may have cost him the job. He was put on leave Monday after 23 staffers called for his removal.

The unprecedented ouster revealed an insular, guarded culture at the nation's Hurricane Center, where directors have rarely fought NOAA publicly for more resources and where veteran forecasters have worried that such fights could shake the public's faith in their predictions.

An outsider who did not come up through the ranks of the Hurricane Center in Miami, Proenza repeatedly talked about detrimental cuts to hurricane research. He pressed NOAA to better align its scientists to support hurricane forecasters. And he argued the aging QuikSCAT satellite must be replaced, or NOAA would risk "a degradation of the National Hurricane Program capabilities."

Along the way, he lost the support not only of his bosses but also of his staff.

"I got pushed back from some of my staff. They felt I was bringing in complications to their world," Proenza said earlier this week in his first detailed interview since his removal.

For forecasters, "perceived credibility is very, very important," said Hugh Willoughby, a Florida International University professor who ran NOAA's Hurricane Research Division from 1995 to 2002. "Their mission statement says to be the calm voice in the storm, and they perceived that what [Proenza] was saying was undermining people's confidence."

Proenza, 62, took over the Hurricane Center after longtime director Max Mayfield retired. Proenza came from Texas, where he ran the Weather Service's Southern Region for nine years, overseeing about 1,000 employees.

Mayfield was a soft-spoken consensus-builder careful not to overstep his bounds. Proenza, however, quickly engaged NOAA in a public battle for more research and technology.

Among other things, he focused on the aging satellite, the only one capable of capturing wind speed and direction over wide swaths of the ocean.

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