YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Hurricane center chief is forced out

Proenza had squabbled with his superiors and angered forecasters. His deputy will take over.

July 10, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — In what people here are calling "the 'cane mutiny," forecasters at the National Hurricane Center succeeded Monday in getting their commander ousted.

Just six months into the job and in the midst of an active storm season, Director Bill Proenza was put on leave and replaced by his deputy, said Anson Franklin, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nearly half of the center's 50 employees signed a petition last week demanding Proenza's ouster. In a memo to NOAA, they accused him of exaggerating their concerns about the reliability of an aging satellite and of damaging public confidence in their forecasting abilities.

Proenza succeeded the popular Max Mayfield as director in January and had publicly squabbled with his superiors at the National Weather Service and NOAA, the Maryland-based parent agency of the weather service and the hurricane center.

Proenza criticized NOAA for spending as much as $4 million on a 200-year anniversary celebration this year while failing to replace the Quick Scatterometer, or QuikSCAT, satellite, a vital part of the forecasters' research arsenal.

In their letter last week, 23 of the center's employees urged Proenza be dismissed for misrepresenting their concerns about the satellite.

Forecasters have said they believe the director's public castigating has hurt the center's ability to secure funding and equipment and has damaged its public image.

"The center needs a new director, and, with the heart of the hurricane season fast approaching, urges the Department of Commerce to make this happen as quickly as possible. The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake," the employees' letter said. NOAA is an agency within the Commerce Department.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. So far this year, there have been two named storms -- subtropical storm Andrea and tropical storm Barry -- and forecasters have warned that a highly active cycle threatens to unleash a dozen storms this fall during the height of the season. As many as five of them, forecasters predict, could develop into major hurricanes on the order of Katrina and Wilma, which struck in 2005.

After the internal strife at the hurricane center became public last month, NOAA sent an assessment team from Washington. Thursday's memo from the employees appears to have pushed NOAA officials to act on the managerial discord.

Franklin said Proenza was still in NOAA's employ. He declined to say more, citing the Privacy Act's limitations on disclosure of information about federal employees.

On Monday, officials named veteran forecaster Edward N. Rappaport as interim director.

Asked if there were concerns at NOAA about the dispute causing distraction at the center, Franklin said: "I just will say that Ed Rappaport is an experienced employee of the National Hurricane Center and I think he will do an excellent job leading a team of professionals."

Mayfield, who retired after 34 years in government service, now works for Miami's Channel 10 as its hurricane specialist. He had high praise for his longtime colleague Proenza six months ago, but appeared to be backing off that support in comments made on the air Sunday.

"I think the biggest cause of this is the fact that they feel that he is not listening to the staff there and, in fact, is misrepresenting some of the things that they've been telling him," Mayfield told a news show host.

Proenza, 62, began his meteorological career in Miami as an intern in 1963, but soon left for administrative jobs elsewhere in the weather service. Before succeeding Mayfield, he was regional director of the weather service's Southeast District headquarters in Fort Worth.

In the technology-intensive environment of forecasting, Proenza appears to have been considered an outsider grown distant from the hands-on work of scientists.

Los Angeles Times Articles