Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Staff Storm at Hurricane Center

After only six months on the job, National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza effectively has been cashiered. Proenza came to the job after eight years as director of the Southern Region of the National Weather Service, which includes the Gulf Coast.

As the St. Pete Times reports:
Bill Proenza, the embattled director of the National Hurricane Center, was replaced suddenly Monday, four days after nearly half his staff called for his ouster.
* * *
"Proenza is on leave but is still a NOAA employee," said Anson Franklin, director of communications for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees the hurricane center.

The official tale is that Proenza's bosses in Washington at the Commerce Department, which include the National Weather Service, are merely responding to a revolt by "nearly half the staff of the National Hurricane Center" who issued "a statement calling for his immediate dismissal," according to the Miami Herald. Lower level staff, it's been widely reported, were most concerned that Proenza "had rankled his bosses with public criticisms of spending priorities," as the New York Times explains.

Two examples, cited in virtually all news reports, are Proenza's criticism early in his tenure of NOAA spending priorities and the concerns he expressed about Washington's delays in replacing a failing weather satellite. As the Palm Beach Post reported last month:
In May, Proenza told the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale that NOAA shouldn't be spending up to $4 million on its 200th anniversary at a time when it had cut $700,000 from hurricane research.
* * *
He also said the QuikSCAT satellite, which provides critical wind measurements, was designed to last up to five years but was now eight years old and could fail at any minute, while the government debates whether to replace it.

NOAA's defense was that it 'only' spent $1.5 million on the "birthday party" and that the QuikSCAT satellite wasn't the end-all in forecasting hurricane strength. Proenza's complaints, one of his Washington bosses said, risked "causing undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff."

Remember that phrase: "undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff."

Soon after Proenza's public remarks, NOAA began sending 'investigators' out from Washington to interview NHC's Miami staff; or to inspire a staff revolt -- take your pick. In an interview with the Miami Herald last week, Proenza "
blamed nearly all of the turmoil on the actions of his bosses, particularly the 'extraordinary disruption' caused by the inspection launched by five federal officials, including an attorney versed in personnel matters."
"That triggered a frenzy of concern [within his staff] about mission deliver and-or one's career," he said.

'I have employees tell me, 'Bill, I am so much for you and for what you've brought in. But I'm so afraid that if I'm viewed to be with you and you leave, then I'm viewed as being in the wrong camp,'" Proenza said.
It is rather striking that staff complaints about Proenza uttered this month almost exactly mirror the immediate push-back two months earlier by NOAA administrators when Proenza first shined a light on their million-dollar-plus "birthday party." Maybe it's coincidence. Or maybe it's circumstantial proof, if any were needed, that outside their narrow field of hurricane forecasting a lot of NHC staffers are naive and easily-manipulated.

Some suggestive evidence for the latter view can be gleaned from a transcript of a press conference three disgruntled NHC staff members gave on July 6. Here are some excerpts we found telling:
Senior Hurricane Specialist James Franklin
We have been a family here, we are a small group of about 50 people. * * * That takes a certain amount of teamwork and appreciation of sense of family and he's destroying that, he's destroying that.
* * *
We've see [sic] members of the Congress talking about how the information from the recognizance aircraft are inferior to QuikSCAT, we're afraid that somebody might get it in their heads to fund a stopgap QuikSCAT to take funds from recon aircraft. There is no comparison, there is not a forecaster here who believes QuikSCAT is more important than recon aircraft or other tools we have. But because this issue has been misreported we're afraid we might lose what we have.

* * *
Lixion Avila-Senior Hurricane Forecaster
He said that we don't want to work with him, because he brings many good ideas, and we don't want to do that. I want you to know that he has not made a hurricane forecast since 1964.
* * *
Vivian Jorge, Administrative Officer
Unfortunately I think a director needs to unite his staff and he needs to be a calming person. It doesn't need to be a no new ideas.
With staff insisting "it doesn't need... no new ideas" it's hard to believe disagreements over the science lie at the root of the staff revolt. Grammar might be more to the point.

It seems to us equally likely that what we're seeing is a relatively insular group of geeks and grunts who fear change. Even the written petition [pdf format] signed by some 23 employees falls short of a ringing declaration of war against the boss over science:
An unfortunate public debate is now occurring over the ability of the National Hurricane Center to meet its mission. The undersigned staff of the National Hurricane Center has concluded that the center needs a new Director, and with the heart of the hurricane season fast approaching, urges the Department of Commerce to make this happen as quickly as possible. The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake. The staff of the National Hurricane Center would like nothing more than to return its focus to its primary mission of protecting life and property from hazardous tropical weather, and leave the political arena it now finds itself in. [italics added]
That's clearly a statement carefully-crafted to attract as many signers-on as possible. ("Okay, so you're against firing him, but isn't it true that you'd like nothing more than to return to our primary mission?") It reads more like a tepid acknowledgment that controversy has been diverting staff attention from their jobs -- something we would characterize as a self-fulfilling prophecy if it weren't for the fact NOAA administrators virtually invented that particular theme -- "undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff" -- in the push-back two months ago.

So what really lies behind Proenza's firing? As Capitol Weather.com observes --
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.
Our guess -- and that's all we can do -- is that Proenza is a real manager with a gruff exterior. "Though his message was on target," as the Miami Herald editorialzes today, "Mr. Proenza's blunt approach was undiplomatic and problematic."

Sometimes he even might have raised his voice. That's not the way to manage the NHC staff, a lot of whom apparently want a sugar daddy at the head of the "family" and not a boss.

We love 'em all at the NHC. After all, they're the ones who will warn us about the next approaching hurricane. The only good news to come out of this mess is that at last the staff will stop trying to second-guess management and get back to the jobs they are competent to perform.

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