Video: Are we prepared for hurricane season?

updated 5/19/2007 4:56:06 AM ET 2007-05-19T08:56:06

Bill Proenza's new title may be director of the National Hurricane Center, but the job comes with an unofficial role, too: celebrity meteorologist.

Since starting the job in January, Proenza has shown he is not content just to have his picture taken or read forecasts on TV. Instead, he has been outspoken about budget shortfalls in the government's weather forecasting programs and warned of a crucial aging satellite. He plans to keep up the frank talk.

"I have to say that I have been to some senior executive retreats where they have said that if we feel we've got an important message concerning our responsibilities, that (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) doesn't want to come across like it is muzzling us," he said.

On Thursday, he said NOAA is spending up to $4 million to publicize a 200th anniversary celebration, while NOAA at the same time has cut $700,000 from hurricane research.

“No question about it, it is not justified. It is using appropriated funds for self-promotion,” Proenza said.

'Fights the good fight for budgets'
His willingness to speak out isn't anything new to those that know him, said Ronald McPherson, a former executive director of the American Meteorological Society who has known Proenza for more than 25 years.

"He fights the good fight for budgets," McPherson said.

NOAA has been in the uncomfortable position of defending itself from public attacks from one of its highest-profile workers.

Proenza has called for hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for expanded storm research and predictions. He has pointed to the weather satellite that is beyond its years and cautioned that the accuracy of hurricane forecasts could suffer if it fails.

But McPherson said Proenza has strengths other than his candidness, namely in working with groups outside the weather field.

That is a good fit for Proenza's outreach-heavy job that requires him to be in the international spotlight during the six-month Atlantic hurricane season that starts in June. When hurricanes threaten, Proenza will spend hours talking to the public and the media.

Proenza's predecessor, Max Mayfield, became a household name and face over the past few years of destructive seasons, patiently guiding Florida and the Southeast through repeated storms in his soothing Oklahoma accent.

Proenza said he will continue Mayfield's push for preparedness, reminding residents to stock up on items and create a family hurricane plan.

First Cuban-American chief
The center's first Cuban-American director has also talked about the importance of making weather information available in a variety of languages.

Proenza, 62, was born in New York but his family moved to the Miami area when he was 9 years old. He later graduated from Florida State University with a meteorology degree. While at college, he spent summers working for the hurricane center.

He flew aboard hurricane hunter aircraft as a meteorologist during several summers and went on to other jobs in the National Weather Service. In 1998, he became the director of the service's Southern region, which is headquartered in Texas. He served there until coming to the hurricane center.

Proenza said he hopes to spend at least five years in his current job, known for its high stress. That would be about on par with Mayfield, who served for six years.

Since moving from Texas, Proenza has been spending a lot of hours at work, gearing up for hurricane season and traveling the country for his preparedness campaign. He said he is at a point in his life where he can devote that much time to his job. He has four grown children and six grandchildren.

He may, however, have to neglect some pastimes, like playing the French horn and listening to his favorite music, which includes classical composers and Enya. It is a sacrifice he is willing to make.

"There is nothing else I'd rather be doing," he said of his new role.

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