Commerce Department to Probe Readiness of National Hurricane Center

By | July 5, 2007

The Commerce Department ordered an unscheduled review of the National Hurricane Center, whose director has publicly complained about insufficient funding but said he and his staff are well prepared to forecast storms.

Director Bill Proenza’s superiors have chastised him for his comments about budget shortfalls and the U.S. government’s failure to replace a key aging satellite that his forecasters use.

Commerce Undersecretary Conrad Lautenbacher said the review that started this past Monday was launched because he became aware “of concerns about (the hurricane center’s) ability to meet its mission.” He did not give specifics.

“I want to ensure the Center’s continued readiness for not only this season but future seasons,” he said in a memo last Friday to center staffers.

Lautenbacher heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, the hurricane center’s parent agency.

Proenza said the review is unnecessary because “everybody here is a top-notch professional” and his staff is dedicated to continuing forecast improvements that the center has made for decades.

But three senior forecasters told The Miami Herald that Proenza’s actions have damaged public confidence in their abilities, exaggerated problems and hurt staff morale. They told the newspaper Tuesday that the center needs a change of leadership.

Proenza’s main complaint has been about the QuikScat satellite, which provides measurements of wind speed and direction over a vast swath of the Atlantic Ocean. He said forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate if it fails. It is already past its expected life span and is working on a backup transmitter.

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Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay contributed to this report.

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