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Stormy Forecast for NOAA's National Weather Service

Andrew Freedman @ 1:19 AM

There's a tempest brewing at NOAA's National Weather Service, and it's showing signs of intensifying.

Bill Proenza, the new director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), is under fire for accusing his bosses of neglecting his important division.

One of Proenza's primary complaints concerns a touchy subject at NOAA: satellites. The agency's initiative to upgrade the nation's network of weather and climate satellites is currently years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Some in Congress are calling for the NOAA administrator's head.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Mostly sunny and very warm. Highs 87-92.
Tonight: Mostly clear. Lows 65-70(suburbs to city)
Monday: Partly to mostly sunny and hot. Highs 90-95.

Proenza fears his hurricane forecasters may soon have to operate without crucial data from a satellite known as QuickScat. QuickScat allows forecasters to measure the surface winds across the planet's vast oceans, providing valuable data relevant to forecasting both storm track and intensity. The satellite is well past its designed lifetime and is currently limping along on a backup system, but a replacement has been pushed back until at least 2016.

According to a Miami Herald article published on Friday, instead of responding to Proenza's complaints by sitting down with him to explore ways to get him additional resources if necessary, the NWS is playing the classic Washington game of silence the whistle blower.

It's not going to work in this case, primarily because Proenza is refusing to play along. And he's got a lot of people backing him up. He is a longtime Weather Service official who is popular among many hurricane center forecasters, NOAA researchers and professionals in the emergency management community.

In Proenza, NHC employees have found a director who is willing to fight publicly for needed resources.

NWS has dug its heels in with him to the point where it's unclear how the top levels of the agency are going to be able to work with him in the high pressure situation of a land falling hurricane.

For example, according to the Herald, the acting director of the NWS, Mary Glackin, flew to Proenza's office in Miami on Friday to hand deliver a three-page reprimand for speaking out against the potential loss of QuickScat and other budgetary issues. Glackin should be an ideal person to respond to the satellite concerns, since according to her NOAA biography, she was responsible for "the design, development, and operation of a series of civilian environmental satellite systems" between 1999 and 2002.

Her letter criticized Proenza for causing "unnecessary confusion about NOAA's ability to accurately predict tropical storms."

In addition, the Herald reported that Louis Uccellini, who directs NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction and in turn oversees the Hurricane Center, tore into Proenza on April 13.

"You better stop these QuikScat [and other] complaints. I'm warning you. You have NOAA, DOC [the U.S. Department of Commerce] and the White House pissed off," Proenza said Uccellini told him.

Hurricane forecasts are a matter of life or death. NOAA should work to satisfy the center's requests or else publicly explain why money that could be going towards hurricane research is instead going to a NOAA re-branding campaign (that's another one of Proenza's complaints).

NOAA has few other options here. They can continue to try to silence Proenza, but he doesn't seem to be in any mood to shut up. And good for him, considering that in advocating for his employees he's really advocating for the millions of residents of coastal areas at risk in what is expected to be an above average hurricane season with heightened risk of a hurricane striking the U.S. mainland.

NOAA can fire him, but that would look even worse than continuing to try to muzzle him. Coming when the agency is under temporary stewardship would further call the move into question. It would cause the already damaged morale at the Hurricane Center to plummet, and would likely incur an investigation by an unfriendly Congress already miffed by the difficulties in the weather and climate satellite program.

NWS and NOAA leadership needs to navigate to the eye of this storm (they do it for real very well) and publicly work with Proenza to get him and his employees the resources they need to protect the American people. That includes pushing for a faster deployment of QuickScat satellite and for more hurricane research money to unlock the secrets of what determines hurricane track and intensity.

The hurricane season started on June 1. There is no more time to waste with this nonsense.

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