Hurricane Center Helter Skelter

You can always tell when a news story is resonating with the local audience. Viewers walk right up to you and ask point blank, “what is going on?”

That’s been what’s happening when I have been out on the street in the last few days. “What the hell is going on at the hurricane center,” the guy that runs my favorite local hardware store asked. He was serious.

Friday I made a number of phone calls to help out our news team that was stationed outside the National Hurricane Center. I checked a number of sources and really struck out. No one called me back. I got a lot of answer machines.

The Hurricane Center Staff was in rebellion. A number of employees of the internationally respected U.S. Government agency has revolted, held a press conference and said they had no confidence in the current Director Bill Proenza.

I have met Bill Proenza once, we shook hands, talked briefly about hurricane coverage and that was it. He was all business, looked me right in the eye, assured me that he’d help in any way I needed. I kind of liked the guy, first impression.

I had followed the issue where Proenza had raised a flag about a failing weather satellite and what he felt were excessive NOAA public relations expenditures. News guys kind of like outspoken public officials who rock the boat. Apparently he rocked it too hard.

Proenza’s DC bosses didn’t like him airing dirty laundry. He was in the hot seat, “the electric chair,” one of my former news colleges used to say.

It was not till the weekend that I started getting some calls. I guess my sources were sorting out the “dust up” at the Hurricane Center. It is interesting that they’d felt compelled to have their say. My opinion? People regard this as a serious situation. These are the weather professionals who we watch and trust. So with that said, if you are my local hardware guy or the about six or seven folks that were nice enough to ask at the grocery store or at the car wash here is what I have been told by professionals who are close to the story:

Proenza had some new ideas about how the center should operate. The long time employees did not feel comfortable with the proposed changes.

Proenza came up through the National Weather Service. He is not a National Oceanic and Atmosphere guy. That rubbed some of the old timers the wrong way.
A couple of the long time forecaster thought they should have be named director after the sainted former Chief Max Mayfield departed.

Proenza is outspoken, not in the mold of a typical public servant. That upset the buttoned down Washington brass in NOAA headquarters, they sent in an investigative team. The worry from my sources is can all of those involved in this squabble get back together and go forward? The answer is no to a person. Humpty Dumpty cannot be fixed. Either the staffers who rebelled must go or Proenza must step aside. My sources tell me the divisions are too deep. This is really dicey as we are now in hurricane season.

Do we need to worry about accurate forecasts? For those I talked to there seem to be no concern. “These are professionals and they will do their best no matter what the politics maybe,” a person with long time familiarity with the inner workings of the Hurricane Center told me.

“Remember, Bill Proenza is on the right side of this issue and he has fought battles and won before, “ I was told by a person who has witnessed the Hurricane Center operation for years and knows Proenza’s history. “Don’t forget he was the guy that went to the mat when the Weather Service honchos want to shut down the Key West weather station. He helped fight that war and won.

What I do not know and my sources do not have a good read is what is
Bill Proenza like out of the public spotlight. In other words, what is he like to work for? I am told that he is a visionary who has long-range ideas and likes to move on them. That can rattle a veteran staff. The fact that his administrative assistant signed a petition that all but requested he be fired intriguing . Is he driven to the point of being counter productive? I have learned long ago that a person’s public persona is not always what you get behind the scenes.
The hurricane at the Hurricane Center is a top of the mind story. It is a
National and international news story. Those involved are now talking. We may
get to the bottom of it yet.

The questions continue and overriding it all is confidence. Confidence that
Those living in hurricane prone regions will get the best forecasts possible despite
The controversy.
That’s what counts and we enter our second month of Hurricane Season 2007.

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