MIAMI (Reuters) - The main U.S. hurricane tracking center was itself in the eye of a storm on Friday after its staff called for the resignation of their boss for picking a political fight with Washington and undermining the credibility of their forecasts.
The newly installed director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Proenza, had launched a high-profile campaign to replace an aging weather satellite he said was crucial for accurate forecasts and publicly criticized his superiors for spending money on public relations.
He won the backing of several Florida politicians who portrayed him as a whistle-blower shedding light on the failings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which runs the Miami-based hurricane center.
But 23 of the center’s staff -- half its work force -- issued a petition on Thursday night calling for Proenza to resign because he had pitched the agency into a distracting political battle and exaggerated the importance of the satellite, called QuikSCAT.
“Bill has poisoned the atmosphere here at the hurricane center,” said senior forecaster James Franklin in a televised news conference on Friday outside the bunker-like hurricane center in west Miami.
“He went off and spoke about issues without getting the information or getting it correctly or relying on the decades of experience of hurricane forecasting that we have here and that he doesn’t have.”
Proenza dismissed the complaints of his senior staff as the grumblings of long-time employees facing change.
He told the Miami Herald on Friday he would not resign. “The staff here doesn’t dictate who the leader is,” he said according to an article on the newspaper’s Web site.
Proenza, who has been in the job since the start of the year, was initially reprimanded by NOAA. But the confrontation came to a head this week when the agency dispatched inspectors to Miami to review operations at the hurricane center.
Shortly after, several of the center’s most respected hurricane experts told the Miami Herald that Proenza should go because he was misrepresenting the importance of QuikSCAT when he claimed that its demise would reduce the accuracy of long-range storm track forecasts by up to 16 percent.
Launched in 1999 and initially intended to have a mission life of just two years, what QuikSCAT actually does is measure surface wind speeds in distant parts of the globe where “hurricane hunter” aircraft cannot go.
Some independent weather experts have also challenged Proenza and noted that as a result of his QuikSCAT campaign, politicians had adopted the dangerously misguided notion that the satellite data was more important than information gathered by air crews on hurricane hunters.
The hurricane hunters are regarded as the best way to get accurate and useful information on a storm’s intensity and structure as it nears vulnerable coastlines.
“There is not a hurricane forecaster anywhere that would trade hurricane hunter data for QuikSCAT,” wrote weather expert Jeff Masters on his tropical cyclone blog on the weatherunderground Web site.
Proenza replaced retired hurricane center chief Max Mayfield, who became a household name in the United States during the ferocious Atlantic hurricane season of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and demolished the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown