Monday, July 9, 2007

A Hurricane Of Controversy At The NHC

An ongoing saga involving the National Hurricane Center has been unfolding in South Florida at the worst possible time. New director, Bill Proenza, is embroiled in a controversy regarding his outspokenness in reference to an aging weather satellite. Unfortunately, as calls for his resignation come from staff members the hurricane season, which began on June 1, moves closer and closer to its peak.

Director Bill Proenza took over as head of the NHC in January after Max Mayfield, a man who was seemingly liked by everyone, decided to retire. From the start there seemed to be some tension, as Proenza spoke out about NOAA's spending plan, his belief that the National Weather Service wasn't being fought for hard enough and that an aging weather satellite could hamper hurricane predictions. Proenza was ultimately reprimanded by Mary Glackin of the NWS, but his comments about the Quikscat satellite have continued to cause controversy.

Proenza stated in May that:

"He(Proenza) is worried about the satellite that provides data on surface wind direction and speed that steers hurricanes. He said he thinks it will stop working at any moment".

This immediately raised questions about whether or not the NHC would be able to effectively predict hurricane tracks and intensity this season. Add to it that Proenza stated "that tracking forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate without it(Quikscat)", and you can understand why people in coastal communities, especially Floridians, were worried about the information the NHC would be able to provide this season.

Ultimately, 23 NHC staff members, mostly senior and front-line forecasters, penned a letter to the Department of Commerce asking for Proenza's resignation. Senior hurricane specialist James Franklin even addressed Proenza's statements that the NHC would be less effective if the Quikscat satellite were to fail during the season by saying:
"He has been very loudly saying if it failed our forecasts for landfalling storms would be degraded, that warning areas would need to be expanded," Franklin said. "None of that is the case, and he knows that we feel that way. The science is not there to back up the claims that he's making."

Right now it appears that both sides are deadlocked, as Proenza has stated that he won't resign unless asked to by his superiors, and his boss, NOAA head Conrad Lautenbacher, has called the damage "repairable".

One thing that is certain is that the peak of hurricane season is fast approaching, and residents of a number of states are relying on the NHC to provide them with important and accurate data. Right now Proenza needs to take a backseat to the forecasters that have to be focused on the various satellites and models they use to forecast hurricane formation, track and intensity. This is a battle that can, and should, wait until November 30 and the end of the hurricane season.

No comments: