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The Nation

Hurricane center's woes cited

A report presented at a House hearing mentions problems deeper than the flap involving its now-ousted chief.

July 20, 2007|William E. Gibson | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

WASHINGTON — In an independent assessment presented at a contentious congressional hearing Thursday, forecasters from Miami's National Hurricane Center called for sweeping changes to boost morale and improve supervision as well as new tools to predict the path and speed of storms.

The hurricane center has problems that go deeper than the divisive flap over Bill Proenza, its ousted director, the report indicated. Staffers also raised concerns about what they characterized as inadequate oversight from Washington and long-standing organizational problems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the center's parent agency.

The report recommends that Proenza, who is on administrative leave, not be allowed to return to the hurricane center.

But merely replacing him would not be enough to resolve these problems, concluded James Turner, deputy director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who led the independent review.

"If staff morale and long-standing organizational issues are not addressed, they will hinder the center's longer-term ability to accomplish its mission," Turner's report said.

The hearing before two House Science and Technology subcommittees was called to determine what prompted Proenza's ouster, which has thrown the center into turmoil in the midst of hurricane season. Officials said they removed Proenza partly because forecasters felt that he muzzled their views and because they feared retaliation by him.

Despite the controversy, Proenza and other officials said the center was well prepared, at least for now, to provide forecasts to the public and to state and local emergency management teams.

Proenza defended his record at the hearing and said afterward that the controversy had at least called attention to the need to replace an outmoded weather satellite, known as QuikSCAT.

"Right now it's important to keep focused on the fact that we didn't have any plan to replace QuikSCAT," Proenza said after testifying. "And I think at this time we are looking to the future with optimism that we are going to have new technologically designed instruments that would not only replace it but actually improve its performance."

Turner's report says the center "faces some potential degradation of its capabilities" if data on wind speed and direction over the oceans are lost with the demise of QuikSCAT, which has exceeded its five-year operational lifespan.

The report cites staff complaints about rushed personnel appointments and inadequate communications among branches, "which only come together as a cohesive unit during a storm."

Several Democrats on the committee likened Proenza to a "whistle-blower," suggesting that he might have been booted by higher officials to stifle his criticism of NOAA and his constant demands to replace the satellite, at a cost of $500 million.

Several Republicans, who accused Democrats of intruding in a personnel matter, staunchly defended NOAA for removing a "miscast" leader who had alienated highly qualified forecasters.

The assessment appeared to eliminate any chance for Proenza to resume his post.

"I hate to see it play out like this," said Max Mayfield, his popular predecessor. "But he's alienated his bosses, he's alienated his staff, and it's time to move on."

Mayfield added: "As I told him again and again, 'As long as you and your staff are on the same page, you have nothing to worry about.' And they weren't. He's the boss, but let's not forget: Bill never made a hurricane forecast, and he needed to listen to his experts."

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Maya Bell of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report from Miami.

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