Former National Hurricane Center Directors Discuss Tough Position

By | July 12, 2007

A day after the director of the National Hurricane Center went on leave following questions about his leadership, former directors said Tuesday he should have listened more carefully to his staff and been slower to make changes.

Bill Proenza went on leave after 23 employees – about half his staff – urged his immediate removal last week. The center’s eighth director had been on the job since January.

Center employees said that Proenza damaged public confidence in their forecasting ability and distracted the center from its work.

“I think the bottom line is that he simply did not listen to his senior staff,” said Proenza’s predecessor, Max Mayfield.

A chief complaint was the way he called for a replacement of an aging satellite called QuikScat and used for hurricane forecasting.

“If he would have hung in there for one season and had kept his head down for one season (without making changes), he would have been much better off,” said Jerry Jarrell, director of the center from 1998 to 2000, who now lives in Oregon. “He forgot that he had to be an advocate for the forecasters. He should have waited until he had some more experience, but sort of plunged in.”

Still, Proenza’s “heart’s in the right place,” he said.

The way Proenza handled QuikScat was not the only issue for center employees.

Jarrell said he had talked with two current employees, one a Proenza supporter and the other not. Proenza wanted a procedural change during storm conference calls and also wanted to change the name of a certain storm warning. Those adjustments contributed to aggravating employees, Jarrell said.

He said Proenza may have set himself up for removal by criticizing his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on budget shortfalls and other issues.

“When you criticize your boss and when you do it publicly in the media you’re sort of inviting your subordinates to do the same thing to you,” Jarrell said.

Jarrell said he had at least one situation where he felt he had to be outspoken as director, during a threat of budget cuts in the 1990s, but he made his comments with the support of his staff and others, including Proenza, he said.

Neil Frank, who served as the center’s head in the 1970s and 80s, said he had few controversies during his 13-year tenure, the major one being what office should directly oversee the center. Now the chief meteorologist at a Houston TV station, Frank was credited with reaching out to the media. He said he was careful to work within the system.

“Talking to the media and bypassing NOAA headquarters is fraught with some danger, as you now know,” said Frank, who remembered a young Proenza helping him on his doctoral dissertation.

Also on Tuesday, a Commerce Department team sent to conduct a review of the center following Proenza’s comments was finishing its work. Proenza had said the inspection was unnecessary and blamed some staff animosity on the team, which has a report due to the Commerce Department on July 20. The department oversees NOAA, the hurricane center’s parent agency.

A National Hurricane Center spokesman said its interim director, Ed Rappaport, was busy preparing for the 2007 hurricane season and would not comment. A cell phone message left for Proenza was not returned.

Proenza’s earlier comments were still having an effect, however. The Senate Commerce Committee planned to take up the issue of QuikScat and other weather and environmental satellites in a hearing Wednesday.

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