Video: A storm brews at the National Hurricane Center

updated 7/6/2007 7:58:29 PM ET 2007-07-06T23:58:29

When there is tension at the National Hurricane Center, it’s usually because a powerful storm is bearing down on Miami, New Orleans or another U.S. city. But the turmoil these days is focused on demands from many staffers that the center’s new director be ousted.

Bill Proenza said in an interview Friday that he has no intention of resigning but will step down if his bosses feel it is best for the center and the public. About half the center’s employees say Proenza has undermined the public’s confidence in them by exaggerating the forecasting problems they would face if an aging weather satellite failed.

The director and his employees were able to agree on one thing — the center is still capable of protecting coastal residents from hurricanes as the Atlantic season begins its traditionally busiest months.

“With or without the satellite, you are safe,” senior hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said. “The center is going to work with Proenza, without Proenza.”

'Nobody's happy'
But the tension was palpable as reporters camped outside the concrete bunker-like building. Proenza gave an interview no more than 20 feet from his forecasters, who quietly went on with their work behind a glass wall with shades drawn. The room where reporters usually transmit updates on approaching storms was instead the scene of an internal dispute gone public.

Twenty-three staffers released a statement late Thursday urging the Commerce Department, which oversees the center, to appoint a new leader.

“Nobody’s happy about doing what we did,” senior hurricane specialist James Franklin said. “We tried so hard not to go this route. There are costs involved, but the costs of not speaking up for the nation’s hurricane program were higher in the long run.”

Proenza blamed many of the problems on a Commerce Department team sent this week to review the center’s management and organizational structure, and its ability to provide accurate, timely information.

He said some staffers felt pressure by the team’s presence and joined the call for his ouster because they did not want to be seen aligned with him.

Official will respect superior's decision
Proenza acknowledged some disagreements with the staff about “what we want for new capability, new science and technology.” But, he asked, “Does that justify removing someone?”

Proenza, 62, said if his superiors asked him to resign, he would respect that decision. Proenza assumed the job in January after a 40-year government weather service career, taking over from longtime Director Max Mayfield, who was widely praised by his former colleagues.

Proenza said his boss, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Conrad Lautenbacher, had given him “no guarantees” about his future, but insisted the damage was repairable.

“We continue to have confidence in the abilities and professionalism of our forecasters. They will do the job they need to do,” NOAA spokesman Anson Franklin said.

'Science is not there'
Proenza has publicly criticized the government for failing to provide enough funding, particularly to replace an aging weather satellite and increase research. He also said NOAA had spent money on an anniversary celebration while cutting research money.

James Franklin, the forecaster, said Proenza had exaggerated the risk if a key satellite called QuikScat failed. It is now past its expected life span, and Proenza has argued that tracking forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate without it.

“He has been very loudly saying if it failed, our forecasts for landfalling storms would be degraded, that warning areas would need to be expanded,” Franklin said. “None of that is the case, and he knows that we feel that way. The science is not there to back up the claims that he’s making.”

Avila and Franklin say they depend on QuikScat more for intensity information than to determine a storm’s path. Avila said the satellite was like a BMW with leather seats: nice but not essential. When asked if he thought Proenza misspoke intentionally, he said: “Don’t attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity.”

Franklin worried that Proenza’s statements would result in inferior technology hastily being substituted for QuikScat, possibly funded with money pulled from reconnaissance flights sent to investigate Atlantic storms.

'A frenzy of concern'
The International Association of Emergency Managers supports Proenza, but was “quite concerned that his employees have turned on him,” said Larry Gispert, the group’s first vice president. The association is a nonprofit organization of nearly 3,000 emergency management professionals from local, state and federal governments, as well as the military, private industry and volunteer organizations.

Gispert urged NOAA to resolve the situation quickly. “This stuff could have gone on either preseason or after the season,” Gispert said.

Proenza said whether he stays or goes, the hurricane center will still function well.

“Everybody has gone into a frenzy of concern and I can understand why. But it’s interesting to note that despite that frenzy of concern, that everybody is still working well together,” Proenza said.

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