Louis Uccellini (National Weather Service)

Reeling from recent controversies over its budget and an exodus in senior leadership, the National Weather Service looked from within to establish some stability. Today it appointed 24-year NWS veteran Dr. Louis Uccellini as its next director.

“It’s an honor to lead such a prestigious agency with the unbeatable mission of protecting lives and livelihoods,” said Uccellini.

Uccellini, who has served in both scientific and managerial roles in the Federal government, takes the place of acting director Laura Furgione, who stepped in after the abrupt retirement of Jack Hayes, the prior permanent director.

Hayes’ retirement coincided with a scandal last June over the “reprogramming” of funds at the agency, which involved moving millions of dollars between accounts without Congressional approval. Robert Byrd, the agency’s Chief Financial Officer, was placed on administrative leave for his involvement (he has since retired). And last week, NWS moved to fire 48-year agency veteran Bill Proenza, director of its southern region, for reprogamming funds at the same time NWS was embroiled in the scandal.

Uccellini intends to restore fiscal credibility within NWS by instituting a “transparent” budget process and “working within that process (and the law) from planning to budget execution,” Uccellini said in an e-mail.  

On and off critics of the National Weather Service say it will be a tall order to get the agency back on track due to ongoing budget battles with its parent agencies, NOAA and Department of Commerce.

Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington who authors a popular weather blog, praised Uccellini’s scientific credentials and experience, but was pessimistic about his prospects for success in securing resources to improve NWS’ primary weather forecasting model (the Global Forecasting System), which has fallen behind the Europeans in accuracy.

“Louis Uccellini has the challenge of leading a National Weather Service buffeted by poor management and lack of vision, both in the upper ranks of the Weather Service and in its parent agency, NOAA,” Mass said. “Many of the problems of the National Weather Service originate in NOAA and the Department of Commerce, where his ability to foster change is limited.”

Dan Sobien, president of the labor union for the National Weather Service, expressed similar sentiments.

“I think Louis is a very good choice, he has all the tools,” said Sobien of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “The challenge for Louis is to convince NOAA saving human lives is more important than saving salmon.”

In an interview, Uccellini stressed his first priority would be to listen to staff as well as constituents outside the National Weather Service to better understand the challenges facing the agency.

“Working with a spectrum of partners, including emergency management, the commercial sector, broadcasters, academia and social scientists, we can and will meet the nation’s needs to overcome the very real threats from the increasing severity and frequency of weather and climate extremes,” Uccellini said.

Uccellini seems unphased by the institutional hurdles, stating in an interview he is committed to making the NWS “second to none” in transferring science and technology into operations while meeting user needs.

Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, said, in addition to confronting budget issues and advancing NWS scientific goals, Uccellini needs to “shore up [staff] morale.” In the last year, travel to major professional and training conferences was substantially cut.

Capital Weather Gang contributor Steve Tracton, who worked under Uccellini within the NWS, called the NWS director job “thankless” but said Uccellini is up to the task.

“I have no reservations in believing that Louis is by far the individual most qualified and suited to generate and ride the wave of the NWS’s future,” Tracton said. “His appointment and willingness to assume the largess of responsibilities and challenges bodes well for that future.”

Uccellini’s background as a civilian government employee departs notably from several predecessors, who were retired military. Cliff Mass said that should work to his advantage.

“NWS has been a retirement zone for military too long, Louis has an intimate knowledge of the organization,” Mass said.

Louis Uccellini (standing) discusses the potential New England winter storm with NWS meteorologist Paul Kocin (seated) Wednesday. (Chris Vaccaro)

Uccellini, 63, has a Ph.D. in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin and previously served as the director of the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction which oversees the National Hurricane Center among 6 other national centers.

“In an era where the NWS Director needs to know the science as much as the intricacies of the human dimension, I think [Uccellini] is solid,” said Shepherd.

In addition to his federal government experience, Uccellini, a resident of Columbia, Md., is one of the co-authors (with Paul Kocin) of the book “Northeast Snowstorms”, a definitive account of the region’s most impactful snow events. With a possible historic blizzard slated for New England Friday, the timing of his appointment is certainly fitting.