WASHINGTON — The director of the National Weather Service was removed from his job Wednesday amid turmoil within the agency and Congress over cuts in the agency's budget, personnel and facilities.
Elbert W. "Joe" Friday was reassigned "to other duties" within the weather service, according to a statement released by the Commerce Department.
"We are hopeful Joe will continue to work with us at [the] NOAA where his experience will continue to be a valuable asset," Commerce Secretary Bill Daley said in the statement.
Friday said he didn't know what to make of the news.
"I've never been fired before," he said. "I haven't talked to the secretary, and I don't fully understand the full basis of this."
People familiar with the weather service characterized Friday as a scapegoat for budgetary problems facing the agency, which has $41.5 million less to spend this year than it did in 1996.
To meet financial constraints imposed largely by the Clinton administration and Congress, the service has left job vacancies unfilled, halted training and postponed maintenance. It also planned to eliminate 185 positions and close its Southern Region headquarters in Fort Worth, splitting its functions between offices in New York and Missouri.
The Commerce Department, however, said in its statement Wednesday it would postpone closing the Texas office until a review of the decision could be made.
Since becoming head of the agency in 1988, Friday had worked tirelessly implementing a $4.5-billion modernization program that brought to the weather service complex new machinery, including radars and unmanned weather observing stations.
He will be replaced temporarily by Robert Winokur, current director of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service at the weather service's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Friday said he hasn't decided whether to accept the position offered to him as head of oceanic and atmospheric research in the NOAA.
"It's disappointing to me personally but things happen. I'm proud of what I've been able to accomplish," he said.
The Commerce Department also announced it has appointed a special advisor to help the head of the NOAA evaluate the budget and operations of the weather service and issue a report to the department within 60 days.
Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Kelly, the former director of the U.S. Air Force Air Weather Service, will oversee the evaluation.
Friday said he welcomed that move: "I am very concerned about the weather service budget . . . I applaud the external review of it."