Storm Rages in Miami Hurricane Center

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Wilfredo Lee / AP

Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center

The National Hurricane Center's website's forecast for this weekend says, "There are no tropical cyclones at this time." Maybe not out in the Atlantic, but there's a Category 3 political tempest raging inside the Hurricane Center's Miami headquarters, where a large swath of the forecasting staff is calling for new director Bill Proenza to be fired. "The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake," says a newly released letter, signed by seven forecasters, which also urges the Center's overseer, the Commerce Department, to dismiss Proenza "as quickly as possible."

That's not exactly what America, especially coastal America, wants to hear as it heads into the serious phase of the hurricane season. But the storm surrounding the forecasters and Proenza, who this year replaced the avuncular Max Mayfield as the Hurricane Center's chief, doesn't look likely to lose strength any time soon. At the heart of the dispute is an aging weather satellite, known as QuickScat, named for the scatterometer that measures wind speed and direction. Proenza has argued for months that QuickScat, which was launched in 1999 and is well past its lifespan, needs to be replaced as soon as possible. And he has publicly criticized his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for not acting quickly enough. If QuickScat were to go on the blink, he claims, the accuracy of the center's three-day hurricane forecasts could drop by 16%.

But several Hurricane Center forecasters say Proenza is being alarmist and a distraction to their work. They argue that QuickScat is hardly as critical to their analyses as Proenza claims, given all the other high-tech measuring tools and methods at their disposal. As a result, they say, Proenza has needlessly divided the Hurricane Center staff and has called into question the forecasting acumen of those who disagree with him. "Bill has poisoned the atmosphere" and "doesn't respect the staff," Center forecaster James Franklin told a press conference today. Proenza is trying to shrug off the criticism, characterizing the rift as more of a collegial disagreement. "I'm still head of the National Hurrican Center," he said Friday, adding he has no plans to resign.

Proenza was reprimanded last month by his immediate boss at the National Weather Service, part of the NOAA, which launched QuickSat. The Weather Service's director, Mary Glickin, chided Proenza in a letter for causing "unnecessary confusion about NOAA's ability to accurately predict tropical storms." Undaunted, Proenza said "my bosses are the American people," and insisted that "I want to make sure that my assessment of these problems that we're facing was out there so they would know. We are the most vulnerable nation on earth to hurricanes."

Hurricane experts seem divided over Proenza's assessment of the forecasting vulnerabilities and the QuickScat issue. Some side with the Hurricane Center revolt, questioning the scientific rigor of his study. Others, like Bob Atlas, director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, insist that Proenza's concerns "are very well founded. QuickScat is [one of the most] valuable forecasting [tools]." Atlas says he applauds Proenza's outspokenness, predicting it will "accelerate the effort to replace QuickScat with an even better scatterometer satellite."

Still others say the schism may have resulted from a personality clash. Proenza, who has openly criticized everything from federal funding cuts to a new name proposal for the Weather Service, may have been too severe a departure from the popular and more soft-spoken Mayfield (who is now a weather forecaster for a local Miami television station). Either way, there might not be as much bonhomie during those on-the-hour cable news network interviews with the Hurricane Center staff during storms this year."It's going to be hard for us to work as effectively as we need to" if Proenza stays, Franklin said.

Proenza dismissed that concern. Nonetheless, a team of Federal officials was sent to the Hurricane Center to gauge the effectiveness of its operations right now. Proenza's fate may well be determined by their report — which most hope will be released before nature releases the year's first hurricane.