NHC update: Proenza loses support

My previous post about the controversy surrounding NHC Director Bill Proenza paints him as a martyr to reactionary bureaucratic muzzling and the Bush Administration’s demands for blind loyalty. I’m not alone in that regard: the media, blogosphere, and other weather nerds have largely rallied around Proenza as a forward-looking hero, oppressed by The Man and supported by The Good Guys.

Alas, as with most things in life, it turns out it’s not that simple:

Three senior forecasters at the National Hurricane Center called Tuesday for the ouster of recently appointed director Bill Proenza, saying he has damaged public confidence in their forecasts, fractured morale and lost their support.

”I don’t think that Bill can continue here,” said James Franklin, one of five senior forecasters at the center. “I don’t think he can be an effective leader.” …

Since taking the most prominent government job in meteorology, Proenza repeatedly has criticized his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saying they have not provided the hurricane center with adequate research funds and failed to plan for the eventual demise of an important weather satellite.

He has been widely viewed as the underdog in a David vs. Goliath battle against the federal bureaucracy, a scenario the forecasters called misleading.

”The public debate has been extremely one-sided,” said Franklin, who has been at the center since 1999 and with NOAA since 1982. “Bill is viewed as a hero in the media for speaking up against NOAA management and he is portrayed as having the support of his staff.

”But the hurricane specialists, by and large, do not agree with much of what he has done,” Franklin said.

In addition to losing the confidence of forecasters Franklin, Pasch and Knabb — and, implicitly, Avila, though (as noted in Colin’s post yesterday) Avila is refusing to say so outright — Proenza has also lost the support of prominent weatherbloggers Dr. Jeff Masters and Margie Kieper, for relying on shoddy science to back his claims regarding QuikSCAT. Money quote:

It greatly troubles me that the most visible and admired member of my profession has failed to use good science in his arguments for funding a replacement of the QuikSCAT satellite. The Director of the National Hurricane Center needs to be an able politician and good communicator, but being truthful with the science is a fundamental requirement of the job as well. Mr. Proenza has misrepresented the science on the QuikSCAT issue, and no longer has my support as director of the National Hurricane Center.

Masters and Kieper hasten to add that they “strongly support many of the valid concerns Proenza has raised,” but they criticize him for focusing so much on QuikSCAT, at the expense of other issues:

Of particular concern are the slashing of critical research funding for the Joint Hurricane Testbed (JHT) from $1.7 million to $1 million, and the lack of adequate yearly increases to the National Hurricane Center budget. Both of these important concerns still remain to be addressed; they were quickly overshadowed by a frantic campaign by lawmakers to fund a new QuikSCAT satellite and by fallout of the remarks concerning the budget for the NOAA 200-year anniversary celebration. The JHT provides the means for promising research to be tested in the NHC operational environment, usually resulting in a successful transition to an operational product at NHC. This program has been extremely successful, and its budget should have been increased, not slashed. As hurricane activity has increased dramatically over the last twelve years, NHC’s budget should have increased accordingly, but it did not.

While wanting to take a neutral stand as to whether to call for Proenza’s dismissal, Senior NHC Hurricane Specialist Lixion Avila clearly shares the concerns that have been put forth by the other senior forecasters Richard Pasch, James Franklin, and Richard Knabb, and former director Max Mayfield. Avila noted, “If I [was] the director of the hurricane center, I would not spend my time fighting for QuikSCAT–I would be fighting to make sure that the reconnaissance planes are always there.”

It sounds to me like Proenza will most likely be replaced soon, and it sounds like that’s probably a good thing, in light of these latest developments. Whatever happens, it needs to happen soon, to prevent this sort of thing from continuing:

[A]s the drama played out [Tuesday], the climate at the hurricane center turned stormy. Some lower-ranking members of the staff support Proenza, and shouting matches between the two camps erupted Tuesday, several people said.

The NHC can’t afford to be bogged down in internecine bureaucratic warfare in the middle of a hurricane season that, climatologically speaking, is likely to get much more active soon.

UPDATE: The revolt widens.

21 Responses to “NHC update: Proenza loses support”

  1. […] Loy has an update on the upheaval at National Hurricane Center, where the new director has come under fire for making controversial comments about funding. Several […]

  2. Tbone says:

    Thanks for the update Brendan. I’ve been concerned about the politicos trying to erode the reputation of the NHC and NWS recently, and from the surface it looked like Proenza was making a stand. having these insider opinions really sheds a new light.

  3. Paul A'Barge says:

    Number of hurricanes last year that threatened the continental USA: 0. Number of hurricanes so far this year that have threatened the continental USA: 0. Number of meteorologists paid by private entities who can forecast the weather just as easily as tax-dollar supported scientists-on-the-dole: huge.

    Responsible government demands an efficient and effective use of our tax dollars. That means that most of those “senior scientists” and the staff at NOAA and the NHC are prime candidates for massive layoffs.

    Cull the dead wood. Let them work at MacDonalds.

  4. Ed says:

    If Mayfield was aware of the coming crisis regarding QuickSCAT, and he was party to the ever-reduced funding for the NHC, why is he not taken to task for twiddling his thumbs and failing to secure the funding for the casues championed by Avila and the others who are critical of Proenza? I don’t remember his calling attention to the looming crisis in NOAA services. Some may conclude he, as “Brownie”, was doing a heck of a job at the NHC.

    This is classic bureaucracy/large organization sociology. To sit back and not rock the boat results in advancement and tenure. To take a position that necessarily results in some reduction in some aspect of the operation results in derision. This is an immutable behavioral reality.

    Where were these brave forecasters to have been seen screaming that the safety of the citizenry was being steadily eroded? If theirs is, indeed, a righteous cause, they must shout the alarm publicly. Since they have not (especially Mayfield), their pious protestations that Proenza is “wrong on the science” are without foundation. They are wholly lacking credibility.

    Proenza, and Mayfield before him, were forced to make a Sophie’s choice. The anger of the staff is completely misdirected at the one making a decision instead of the power that forces a decision where there should be none.

    Ultimately, the enemy is us. As a society, we insist on champagne services on a beer budget. If we don’t get it, we blame someone else.

    Brendan – I would LOVE for you to do a study as to the merits. Is the pusuit of satellite capability demonstrably bad, or is it a reasonable choice, given nothing but bad choices?

  5. gahrie says:

    Knowing what we do now, seems to me that some of you owe the Bush administration an apology.

  6. Andrew says:

    gahrie, don’t count on it. But I at least appreciate Brendan taking the time to correct the record.

  7. Mike Tichon says:

    Check out Huffington’s site. Apparently, about half the staff of the NHC have signed a petition calling for a new director to be appointed before the start of the hurricane season.

  8. Chuck Doswell says:

    Nothing is ever simple, but the argument that Bill Proenza should be removed because he misreprsented the science is an interesting one. If we immediately removed all the NOAA and NWS administrators who ever misrepresented weather science, virtually none of them would ever be around very long, including Bill’s current “superiors” in the pecking order. Its characteristic of NOAA and NWS administrators that they have far too little understanding of the science. Hence, they are typically unaware of the needs and concerns of their staffs.

    Personally, I find it incomprehensible that NHC forecasters would rebel against a courageous Director who actually cares enough about the infrastructure for forecasting to go to war with his administrator, who apparently prefer to use their budget for a multimillion-dollar celebration of NOAA’s anniversary!

    I suspect some sour grapes over Bill’s selection by the staff, but I admit I don’t know all the insider information necessary to validate such speculation

  9. janice says:

    Am I missing something? What I read says the satellite has outlasted it’s life expectancy? So, if it survived projections of it’s lifespan, shall we call it poor technical insight and a faulty determination. Or, is NOAA holding it’s breath hoping Proenza’s use of a scientific study (albeit misconceived) doesn’t come true. I’m not a statistician — but, I can’t picture someone using a sampling that wasn’t statiscally sound or varifying whether they biased the study with their choices for the sample and/or qualifying that choice.

    As far as sour grapes, I don’t think so. Most people have been passed over at some point in their career. They’re usually pretty mature about it and don’t misdisrect their anger to the selectee. My speculation is the inspection was an intimidation tool. You can’t blame people for switching stream when they have a family to support. It takes inner strength to backup from a stand, too.

  10. B says:

    As far Janice on sour grapes, I don’t think so. Many people have been passed over at some point in their career are NOT mature about it, and DO misdisrect their anger at the selectee. I know, as I have been there, with a gutless management unwilling to deal with the screamer. Her speculation is the inspection was an intimidation tool is likely in my book, but I CAN blame people for switching horses when the family they have to support may have to make it by other means when the bunch up there tries to give their jobs to a small private firm in a Pennsylvania pillbox.. It takes inner strength to backup from a stand when you are convinced it is the moral thing, or to keep it with the same circumstance. Anyone remember “A Man For All Seasons”? Thomas More had a family upset with him he would not back down from his position on endorsing Henry VIII’s xth divorce of 6 or 8. Yet, not only had he lost his job as Lord Chancellor (Attorney General), but his head as well. If you let the SOB’s march down your rights and the right way, you end up with another Sadaam. Courage, folks.

    In addition to agreeing with Doswell about sour grapes, my comment is that Proenza has been calling for modernizing NHC for the last 4 years. This would make them click with the rest of the rest of the Weather Service. Sounds like a lot of work some people don’t want to do. There was an incident in which hurricane wind fields were shipped to the field offices, and one of the NHC forecasters saw the resulting output and exclaimed, “what is THAT crap?”. Well, it was crap because NHC refused to work with the AWIPS system used in the rest of NWS. The problem in NHC is many have resisted getting on the same page and operations mode as the field offices.Let the field do all the work instead. Proenza knows this problem well, and said, “do it”. Now all we hear is whining. I am not impressed with “concerns” by a mutinous bunch who are trying to have him relieved just 6 months after he darkened the door, several of whom are rumored to be previous applicants to the NHC Directorship. He got shoved in there, not even really wanting the job. Proenza is KNOWN to be a mover and shaker. As commented he sometimes takes the hard way. He is no shrinking violet and from this one can see would not be weak willed. He expects to be informed of what goes on in HIS shop, for which HE is responsible. He wants measured improvement in forecasts, which it should not be too much to ask a GS 14/15 to come up with. And he needs to have oversight over his subordinates, not an autonomous bunch of people who do their own thing. So what happened to just saluting smartly with a “yes sir”, and carrying out what you were told to do? This is not a GD democracy here. Proenza is, like he tried to do at WSHQ, trying to save the ASS of NWS. They thank him with a knife in the back and in the eye. After a couple of dozen weeks on the job. Well, you guys are all welcome, indeed!

    As far Janice on sour grapes, I don’t think so. Many people have been passed over at some point in their career are NOT mature about it, and DO misdisrect their anger at the selectee. I know, as I have been there, with a gutless management unwilling to deal with the screamer. Her speculation is the inspection was an intimidation tool is likely in my book, but I CAN blame people for switching horses when the family they have to support may have to make it by other means when the bunch up there tries to give their jobs to a small private firm in a Pennsylvania pillbox.. It takes inner strength to backup from a stand when you are convinced it is the moral thing, or to keep it with the same circumstance. Anyone remember “A Man For All Seasons”? Thomas More had a family upset with him he would not back down from his position on endorsing Henry VIII’s xth divorce of 6 or 8. Yet, not only had he lost his job as Lord Chancellor (Attorney General), but his head as well. If you let the SOB’s march down your rights and the right way, you end up with another Sadaam. Courage, folks.

    One can perceive, from looking at all the CNN interviews and all, that Proenza pursues his duties with such energy and determination that it makes him a little hard to work for. However, such a work ethic would go a long way to saving these people’s CAREERS. He may have been perfectly happy as Southern Region Director and did not actively seek the NHC job, but was FORCED into it by upper management, who wanted to silence him at the “corporate board” meetings in NWS HQ. Why? Reportedly, because he saw what he saw, did not like it because it was corrupt or because it was stupid, or whatever it was, and did not mince his words. Not very bureaucrat-like behavior. Not a status-quo guy and having no faith in a system that is justified only because “it’s the way we’ve always done it.”. I, for one, have faith only in God. I will say, “All others we (must) monitor.” To quote a certain Prof. Barnhart from an old movie I always loved, “It’s not faith that makes good science, Klaatu. It’s curiosity.” Well, ultimately the HQ brass silenced him and sent him away to the swam where they would no longer have to hear him. They only gave him a TALLER podium and a MORE POWERFUL amplifier and BIGGER speakers. Now THEY are out. Gee I wonder why?

    Proenza is, in my opinion, following his conscience by reporting what he sees. NOAA has spent millions of hurricane operations and research dollars publishing slick magazines promoting myths that NOAA is 200 years old. NOAA is NOT 200 years old! NOAA is 37 years old. Period. If NOAA is 200 years old, we are all 6 million years old, based on evolution, or 6000 based on the Bible. Take your pick, 6M or 6K, each is equally absurdas being our individual age. This whole magazine opus has been a waste of effort, and is proof positive that HQ is overloaded with overpaid individuals with nothing to do except cook up fables in publishing “Details” like magazines, or designing procedures and programs for field offices whose operations they never could understand. This is the government! Our government is not in the business of publishing NFL programs.

    Regards to Jeff’s comments inferring the QuikSCAT was not a way of track forecasting, but… “QuikSCAT was widely known to be used in intensity forecasting.” Hmmm that has something to do with wind radii, which trickles down into “the cone of uncertainty”, am I right? He goes on… “…only a privileged few are able to read unpublished research. This limits the possibilities for an informed debate on the issue…” but is there time to do this, especially when NOAA is spending RESEARCH MONEY on GLOSSY SEXY MAGAZINES THAT PROMOTE MYTHS?” And the hurricane RESEARCH SCIENTISTS love what Proenza is doing for them, according to news reports.

    Jeff mentions modest improvements to NOGAPS. Is NOGAPS one of the better perfuming models? Seems to me it is out to lunch most of the time anyway.

    If Jeff would hate to lose the QuikSCAT satellite, then why would he question Proenza over the improvement be it 16% OR 2%?

    Proenza is a hero in my book. Doswell is right. I am pretty sure he is not a perfect scientist, and not a hurricane researcher by any stretch, for he has been managing regions and people for years. But he seems to be a thoughtful, proactive, forward-thinking man, with his wits very much about him. My thoughts and prayers are with Proenza. I think those of many Emergency Managers are so as well. And I pray to see an examination of conscience, hopefully not seared, and immediate stop to this insubordination.

  11. janice says:

    B. I agree they can’t stop the madness without courage. But, I assure you my refusal to goose step left me with ONLY my self respect and that doesn’t pay bills or put food on the table. They need to stand solid but the reality is his supporters will be targeted one by one, and that’s based on my first hand experience. At least they’re safe until the Neuremberg trials are reconvened. Check Eric Berger’s Science Blog for my longer opinion. I’m proud to have given it my best shot and I wouldn’t exchange my principals for security. I’m praying for Proenza, too.

  12. B says:

    Thanks for your comment, Janice. BTW I cannot find your comment in Eric Berger’s Science Blog…can you send the URL?


    Heard many of the letter signers thought this letter thing was going to be internal to NOAA. If true, that could be bad news for those who gave it to the press, possibly involving civil or other litigation…one good reaso they should NEVER have signed it. Someone apparently did a STUNT for a power grab, and they (not necessarily singular) may end up getting cooked.

  13. janice says:

    Think one of the inspectors “accidentally” left it his briefcase unlocked by a newsman? Hmmmm……

  14. Charlie says:

    As an employee in the National Weather Service (NOAA) for three decades and a manager for two decades, I’ve known Bill Proenza a long time. I will always believe his heart was in the right place, but he probably picked the wrong stage and the wrong time to champion his cause. Certainly, employee votes shouldn’t decide his career, but Bill has to ask himself how the situation evolved to the point at least half his staff was willing to sign a petition to get rid of him. One unfortunate aspect that will remain after this debacle has played out is that NOAA will still be managed by bureaucratic clowns who, as my good friend Chuck said, have “far too little understanding of the science,” and that’s putting it very politely. And, if NOAA really is celebrating 200 years of service to the nation, that means I have worked for NOAA 194 years, since my career began when NOAA was 6 years old.

  15. janice says:

    Actually, I believe Lachtenbacher is a scientist in addition to being a retired admiral. The petition leak simply put more choices in the bulls eye. You really have to wonder how seasoned employees federal employees reached a belief that a petition could result in the removal of an employee (especially without 100% agreement). Who gave the assurance, it would remain internal to NOAA?

    I “gotta” quit reading these blogs. Nothing I did made a difference when I was there and nothing I say here is going to matter, let me join the fatalists — change isn’t in the forecast. History is going to be repeated over and over. God Bless whomever becomes the latest victim(s).

  16. B says:

    Thanks Janice, it’s a good blog you wrote. I do believe Proenza is being set up for termination as well, and has been all along. Reason is that he is not a yes-man. That is not career enhancing in the current political climate, but he does not seem to be the type to hold back when it is not morally right. However, but also that he was sent down there to get NHC in with the rest of the NWS GFE grid forecasting methodology, and away from the “hunt and peck” forecast product generation we have been doing since the teletype was invented. SPC Norman OK has been putting out watches using GFE grids for a good while now. Proenza has been pushing this over that mind numbing matrix thing that the other regions were pushing. Eventually the other regions capitulated and we ended up thankful for Proenza’s visionary gift. I think NHC does NOT like GFE, and it shows even now. I seriously doubt now that QuickSCAT was ever their issue. I doubt Proenza advocated getting rid of RECON flights. I do believe the issue is making NHC get in sync with the rest of the NWS. That is why he was sent there, but it causes inflated egos (some with questionable forecasting skill) to get ruffled, and I think that is why they did the mutiny, and the “High Command” encouraged it.

    As you said in the Houston Chronicle Sci Guy blog, at least “several” of the NHC forecasters are (were?) behind Proenza, but it’s now hard to imagine a federal agency that will as quickly LOSE its high public regard and attention. The forecasters want more “respect”, and Proenza WAS fighting for them, but since this stunt I don’t think they have it nor deserve it anymore. Also, the release of this, without knowledge of all who signed, may bear serious legal problems for those who did it, especially the camera hounds.

    This story will bear following. The tropics are quiet now, but I bet some or all of the mutineers, along with the NOAA brass, who it seems did this “inspection” to egg them on to mutiny, will be doing a carpet dance in front of a Congressional hearing. I disagree that Proenza has “clearly embarrassed” the brass, To me, the brass clearly embarrassed themselves and may also find themselves in front of a long green table. How petty might they look? Very much so, methinks. And I do think they WILL try to can him amidst hurricane season for speaking his mind. Like I said before, too many are a bunch of know- nothing political hacks, some of whom may never have done a real day of work ever (re: FEMA), and never had cause to be in charge of a gas station, much less such an important Federal Agency.

    What really surprises me that a retired Vice Admiral, who loves to use that rank in all his communications as head of NOAA, would allow this conflagration to happen on his watch. He was in the Navy, and in the Navy, the skippers support their department heads, who in turn support their division officers, who in turn support their Chiefs and First Class petty officers. Likewise, the Type commanders and fleet commanders fight the Pentagon on behalf of their squadron commanders and group commanders, for funding the internal structure, or “shore establishment”, and to keep ships maintained and sailors trained. I thought that mindset would dictate how he would run NOAA. Guess maybe not. I am flabbergasted with how all this panned out.

  17. janice says:

    Flabbergasted, I saw the news that came out today in the Miami Herald. What a tragedy!

  18. jim says:

    Blair Singer makes an interesting comment and provides a different perspective to this story. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2007/7/prweb538886.htm

  19. janice says:

    It’s a great idea on the team building thing — Having participated in one at NWS, I can honestly say if that was an expert I’d hate to meet up with the riff raff. In addition, NOAA has had survey after survey to gauge employee satisfaction. I questioned the man who was in charge of the statistics and the resulting exercises. The question — “How are you going to measure the results?” “Are you going to implement any of the suggestions?” The response was we haven’t got that figured out. And, I assure you they never did figure it out. So, leadership got to say they questioned everyone for input — and, that’s all the results they needed for their performance appraisal. See, I care about my employees and I asked for input. See, these are the changes we made……

    I’ve been in professional team building exercises when organizations going through major changes. They work. Results can measured.

    In all sincerity, my firm belief is this is an exercise in “What are we going to do about Bill?”

    They justified their actions in the letter by stating, Proenza would do the same thing to his employees for the same reasons and they would expect him too. Proenza’s statement in the news does not mirror that opinion. I believe he said, sure we’re going to have disagreements but is that any reason to fire somebody. Oops! They put words in his mouth again and something else came out.

    Paragraph 2 of his letter of instruction (reprimand) states the public job description. If those instructions gave him permission to do it, I missed it.