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Hurricane Proenza

Andrew Freedman @ 2:07 AM

Frequent Undercast readers will recall the column on June 17 firmly backing embattled NOAA National Hurricane Center (NHC) director Bill Proenza in his bruising battle with NOAA leadership. Proenza has been fighting Washington for more resources for his vital field office.

I had hoped at the time that the conflict would remain rooted in the important disagreements over funding priorities and could be resolved quickly. That has not happened.

Instead, what was a weak tropical storm of a controversy has exploded into a powerful Category Five hurricane blowing through the tight knit hurricane science community. This storm must dissipate before it inflicts serious and lasting harm upon the world's top hurricane forecasting center. Unfortunately for Proenza, the fastest way to resolve the issue is for him to leave.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Mostly sunny and hot -- moderate humidity. Highs 92-96.
Tonight: Mostly clear. Lows 70-75 (suburbs to city).
Monday: Partly sunny, very hot, and humid. Highs 95-100.

At this point it's difficult to gauge who is right and who is wrong in the dispute: Proenza and his dwindling and largely silent group of supporters (his family?), the NHC staffers who kicked their director when he was down and want him gone, or the NOAA leadership who wanted him out weeks ago.

The bottom line is now clear: Proenza has become a destabilizing force both within NOAA at large and now within NHC, and that's intolerable. He should leave regardless of whether he's correct for speaking out about NOAA mismanagement and lack of foresight in planning for a new satellite to replace the elderly QuickSCAT. The merits of his arguments -- and there are many -- must take a back seat to efforts aimed at restoring NHC's credibility during the hurricane season that's already underway.

Although Proenza has pronounced the center "As ready as we've ever been", the NHC turmoil may make the millions of coastal residents in harms way take their forecasts less seriously if a storm threatens to make landfall this year. And that could have deadly consequences.

I was previously willing to let Proenza have it out with NOAA leadership, but now his staff has made it clear he's fighting alone. That's fine to do as a private citizen or as a NOAA bureaucrat, but not as the leader of NHC.

According to their own accounts, senior NHC staff members are not sleeping, are fighting with one another, and refusing to meet with Proenza one-on-one for fear of having the conversation publicly misrepresented. One could argue that the staff has reacted like a spoiled child angry over change, but their actions should not be dismissed so casually.

Fear of eroding public confidence in NHC forecasts is the primary driving force behind the extraordinary petition in which nearly two dozen senior staffers, including some of the most highly respected hurricane forecasters in the business, publicly called for Proenza's ouster this past week. The petition signaled the nail in Proenza's coffin, as well as the first recorded mutiny in NHC history.

In addition, the staff who signed the petition stated that they don't agree with many of Proenza's criticisms of NOAA.

As with many relationships, the frustrating thing about the Proenza/NHC breakup is that one of its root causes is poor timing. Maybe if Proenza had spoken up loudly during the winter he would have had a better chance of weathering this tempest. Then again, it's doubtful the media would've paid much attention to this matter during the winter.

It's important to remember that Proenza may be correct in his assertions that NOAA is not providing sufficient resources to ensure the continued high performance of NHC. A key question is whether forecasters will be better off five or ten years from now if NOAA ignores Proenza's concerns.

Clearly the debate over hurricane forecasting resources needs to play out and it likely will continue after Proenza leaves his post. Lawmakers and the public should hold NOAA accountable for their spending priorities and oversight.

But for now, with Hurricane Proenza, the cone of uncertainty is narrowing, and it's not looking good.

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