Leadership Identified as a Cause of Hurricane Center Storm

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A management warning has just been posted for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, often regarded as one of the government's most prestigious agencies.

Bureaucratic thunderstorms have swirled around the center for the past two months, and Bill Proenza, the center's director, is at risk of losing his job because he no longer has the support of his bosses in Washington or the hurricane forecasters at the center. Proenza, 62, is a career federal executive with decades of experience at the National Weather Service.

At first, the controversy revolved around Proenza's warnings about an aging weather satellite, QuikSCAT, and differences with bosses over budget priorities.

But a new report, prepared at the request of Proenza's superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests that issues of leadership and staff divisions at the hurricane center are at the heart of this storm.

Although the report lays out a number of issues, Democratic Reps. Brad Miller (N.C.) and Nick Lampson (Tex.), who chair subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee, are not satisfied and will probably ask for more information and Bush administration documents, an aide said. NOAA, meanwhile, plans to come up with an "action plan" for the hurricane center by month's end.

Proenza was chosen last year by NOAA to lead the hurricane center and had been on the job for only six months when he faced a staff mutiny and was placed on leave. The NOAA report underscores how troubled relations with a staff can capsize the career of a federal executive.

In June, for example, a group of hurricane center employees, including seven of the nine hurricane specialists, sought out a senior official at the National Weather Service to raise their concerns about Proenza.

In a secret conference call, the employees said they were scared of Proenza, felt muzzled by him, lacked confidence in his knowledge of the hurricane program and questioned his integrity, contending that he had misrepresented their actions and views to others, including the news media.

The employees made their complaints to Mary Glackin, acting director of the National Weather Service, who had a conference call with Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, and Eddie Ribas, director for workforce management at NOAA.

The employee complaints prompted Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., the head of NOAA, to form an outside investigative team to go to Miami and assess the problem. The team was led by James M. Turner, deputy director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The NOAA team recommended that Proenza be reassigned "due to his failure to demonstrate leadership," the report says.

The NOAA team's report, which was posted last week on the Web site of the House Science and Technology Committee, contains several findings and allegations. Jessica Parks and Cathy Harris, lawyers representing Proenza, said NOAA had not given him a chance to respond.

Proenza also was not informed that an investigation was taking place until the NOAA team arrived, Harris said. Parks noted that the employees were not interviewed under oath and said "there is no backup to their allegations."

Perhaps more important, the NOAA team found that problems at the hurricane center run deeper than any concerns about Proenza. "Simply replacing the director will not resolve the center's workplace issues," the report says. "If staff morale and long-standing organizational issues are not addressed, they will hinder the center's longer-term ability to accomplish its mission."

For instance, the report says, the branches of the hurricane center operate as separate units, and some employees do not feel they receive equal attention or that their expertise is respected by senior weather service officials.

Poor communication among hurricane center and weather service units are a factor in the staff's morale problems, it adds. "A number of staff expressed concerns about indecisiveness by managers and confusion about approval processes and managers' authority within the decision making chain of command."

Despite the concerns, NOAA officials said the Miami employees were fully prepared to provide accurate and timely forecasts for this hurricane season.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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