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.
In recent months, NOAA has come up with a plan to draw wind data from other satellites if QuikSCAT fails, though scientists say the information will not be nearly as detailed. The agency also launched a study last month on a replacement satellite.
Proenza was "absolutely correct" on the value of the satellite, said Robert M. Atlas, director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and a leading expert on QuikSCAT. "His arguments are supported by a majority of the scientific community."
But rather than backing him, his forecasters rebelled, saying Proenza exaggerated the Hurricane Center's dependence on the satellite and called into question their ability to track storms. At the same time, Proenza was criticized by bosses in NOAA, with the acting head of the National Weather Service sending a three-page letter last month reprimanding Proenza for causing "unnecessary confusion about NOAA's ability to accurately predict tropical storms."
Mayfield, the former Hurricane Center director, said Proenza should have heeded his forecasters, who said the loss of a single satellite would not undercut their predictions because many other tools are available.
"Every time I talked to him, I said: 'You've got to listen to your staff. You've got to be on the same page with them,' " Mayfield said of Proenza.
Others praised Proenza for speaking out, despite the risk of a professional lashing. At a time when hurricanes are striking the U.S. coastline with deadly force, they say Proenza was simply trying to arm forecasters with better research and technology.
"I think that many people chafe at change, and it's possible that his management style wasn't what they were used to," said Stan Goldenberg, with NOAA's Hurricane Research Division. "But Proenza had a track record of standing up for what he felt was right."
When Proenza arrived in Miami on Monday morning, he was handed a letter from NOAA that placed him on immediate leave.
Proenza said he has no regrets about speaking up. "The worst scenario," he said, "is to find ourselves in a situation in the future where the program has been compromised and life may have been lost or threatened, and I never said anything."