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Tracking the Storm at the National Hurricane Center

Date: 
Thursday, July 19, 2007 - 12:00am
Location: 
Washington, DC
Joint Hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment and the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight

Opening Statement By Chairman Brad Miller (Investigations & Oversight)

On first impression, what’s been unfolding at the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC) sounds like office politics, something that happens every day at workplaces all across America. Certainly, there are disgruntled employees having difficulty adjusting to a new manager and a new Director trying to adjust to a new chain of command. But on a closer look, something just doesn’t seem quite right, the facts don’t quite add up.

We know that Bill Proenza, before being named Director of the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC) in Miami, had demonstrated that he was a strong, well-regarded leader throughout his seven years as head of the National Weather service Southern Region. We know that by all reports, Mr. Proenza had a strong relationship with the Weather Service union, and was seen by line-employees as one of their staunchest supporters.

We would assume, that if Admiral Lautenbacher was convinced that Mr. Proenza would be a superb replacement for the retiring Max Mayfield, he must have also thought that Mr. Proenza was a competent leader and manager.

What doesn’t make sense is why we are here today, trying to understand why a proven leader with a known track record has come to find himself in grave difficulties with his own employees and managers.

If you look past the apparently spontaneous rebellion by employees in the lab, and look past what has unfolded at the managerial level of NOAA, the question arises whether Mr. Proenza was pushed out because he was a whistle blower, a truth teller.

Mr. Proenza called attention to the failure of NOAA to take aggressive steps to find a replacement for Quickscat. That has come to be a major talking point for Mr. Proenza in recent months. Some have criticized his comments and the science underlying his observations. To these critics I would note that Mr. Proenza had been relying on staff for this information and so the blame, if there is any, should be spread widely. In addition, to argue about the projected degradation or whether one model matters more than another misses the point that virtually everyone in the meteorological community agrees they need Quickscat. Finally, the source for Mr. Proenza's information shows up in NOAA presentations to the National Research Council in April and in February's "Interagency Strategic Research Plan for Tropical Cyclones" produced by the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology. To argue about the projected degradation or whether one model matters more than another misses the point.

He also called attention to the amount of money being spent by NOAA to celebrate its 200th Anniversary – an amount that appears to exceed $4 million over FY2006-2007 if one includes the costs of employees working on the issue.

Finally, Mr. Proenza opposed the weather service “downsizing” efforts that had been the hallmark of Mr. Johnson’s tenure at the National Weather Service. For that he earned the gratitude of many in Congress and in the Union.

Not every manager would welcome Mr. Proenza’s willingness to speak out. Some would see him as an annoyance. In addition to the possible motive of silencing an internal critic, the actions of the NOAA management suggest that something isn’t right here, that this isn’t about Mr. Proenza’s deficiencies as a manager. The chronology of events just doesn’t fit.

  • By the spring of 2007, Louis Uccellini, Proenza’s immediate supervisor and head of the NECP, began keeping a file on Mr. Proenza containing apparently minor administrative violations by Proenza. It should be noted that while Mr. Uccellini was Mr. Proenza’s superior, he was Mr. Proenza’s junior in the weather service and he and Mr. Proenza had been essentially of equal rank when Proenza was head of the Southern Region of NWS.
  • In April of 2007, senior staff at NOAA met at the Admiral Lautenbacher’s direction to work on something labeled in an e-mail as the “Proenza plan.” This plan was to have five steps and be run by legal for review… It was shared with D.L. Johnson, then head of the National Weather Service and Jack Kelly, Deputy Undersecretary at NOAA.
  • • On June 14, three days after being named as Acting Director of the Weather Service, Ms. Mary Glacken approved a memo that listed Mr. Proenza’s minor administrative violations that Mr. Uccellini had collected and urged Mr. Proenza to work through the chain of command and adhere more strenuously to new NOAA media policy.
  • On June 21 or 22, TPC senior forecasters—going against the chain of command -complained to Ms. Glacken about Bill Proenza’s leadership. The call was organized by the Executive Officer in the Center, Dr. Ahsha Tribble, who was seen by many at the TPC to be a “headquarters person.” Dr. Tribble had arrived at the Hurricane Center just last September after working as Technical Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.
  • By June 26, Admiral Lautenbacher assembled a team to be dispatched from Commerce to the Center to evaluate its operations. The team did not include any management or weather experts. Rather than turn to outside parties with expertise in the relevant areas - administration (National Association of Public Administration) or meteorology (National Academy of Science)—the Admiral selected people from within Commerce who had no background in weather service forecast office issues and little expertise in the science. The team’s preparation included meeting with the senior management figures who had played a role in preparing Mr. Proenza’s June memo and in launching the “Proenza plan.”
  • On July 2, the team arrived on site. Mr. Proenza learned that this team was being sent by a telephone call from the Admiral that was designed to be timed with their arrival. While Mr. Proenza was unaware that a team was being dispatched to the Center of which he was Director, other people at the center knew of their pending arrival. Ahsha Tribble, apparently was assigned to greet the team and take them to Proenza’s office.

I hope that our witnesses today can explain some of this. I look forward to hearing Mr. Proenza’s side of the story. I look forward to hearing from Admiral Lautenbacher on his management of NOAA and of the TPC

 

 

 

 

 

 


Opening Statement By Chairman Nick Lampson (Energy & Environment)

Good morning. We are here today to examine the situation that has developed over the past few weeks at the National Hurricane Center.

Things may be relatively calm over the Atlantic, but it has been stormy at the Center and this is a situation that must be resolved so this organization can do its important work for the public – forecasting hurricanes and issuing warnings to the emergency management community and the public.

Today, we will hear from Mr. Bill Proenza, who was asked by Admiral Lautenbacher to become the Director of the Hurricane Center in December of last year. Mr. Proenza did not apply for this job or ask to be considered for the opening created by the retirement of Mr. Max Mayfield.

Mr. Proenza was well-known to the Southern Region and by his superiors at NOAA Headquarters. He led the Southern Region Office of the National Weather Service (NWS) for the past seven years and, due to that position, served on the NOAA Corporate Board.

By all accounts he has a reputation for speaking his mind and, occasionally ruffling feathers in an effort to change the way things are done inside the NWS when he believed it was in the public interest to do so.

So, NOAA leadership selected an experienced and dedicated NWS manager to be the new Director of the Hurricane Center.

Now, before he has been in the position for a single hurricane season, NOAA has dispatched an assessment team to the Center, a number of employees at the Center have become upset enough to call for Mr. Proenza to step down, and Admiral Lautenbacher has placed Mr. Proenza on temporary leave from the position he asked him to accept just seven months ago.

In the background, we have some other controversies. Shortly after his appointment to the hurricane center, Mr. Proenza drew attention to the fact that a satellite – QuikSCAT – that provides data used in forecasting was beyond its design-life and, if it failed forecasts could be degraded.

As I understand it, he wanted NOAA to prepare for this possibility and have a plan to replace it. His statements to the press about this issue, clearly made NOAA Headquarters uncomfortable – uncomfortable enough that Acting Director of the Weather Service, Mary Glackin issued Mr. Proenza a memo on June 14 stating the belief that Mr. Proenza’s statements were undermining confidence in Center’s forecasting abilities.

What is going on? That’s what we’d all like to know. This is hurricane season. The only storms the Center should be dealing with are those that form out in the ocean. I still do not fully understand why Admiral Lautenbacher believed that dispatching an assessment team with little experience or knowledge of NWS or forecasting to the Center was the appropriate way to deal with staff complaints about Mr. Proenza. It seems the arrival of the assessment team exacerbated problems with the staff, and has left the NHC without a Director.

Is this the case of a disruptive, renegade Manager that mis-treated and alienated the staff of the National Hurricane Center and has put its forecast and warning mission in jeopardy? Or has NOAA leadership helped to foster staff resentment of Mr. Proenza and used this resentment to justify removing a career employee who embarrassed NOAA leadership by pointing out shortcomings in the Agency budgets and their failure to plan for future replacement of essential forecasting equipment?

I don’t know, but we are going to try to figure out was has happened. At a minimum, NOAA leadership has made at least two bad decisions. First, either Mr. Proenza was the wrong choice to lead the Hurricane Center in December or, it was premature to send in an assessment team and remove him in July. The second bad decision was the Admiral’s failure to inform me and two other Members of this Committee he met with on June 27 of potential problems at the Hurricane Center or his plan to send an assessment team there on July 2.

It is clear from the documents we received last night, Admiral Lautenbacher not only was aware of the problems, but had already set the plans in motion to dispatch the assessment team to Miami.

We cannot afford any more bad decisions. It’s hurricane season. The people at the Center need to work together to perform the essential task this nation needs – providing forecasts and warnings of hurricanes. The Center needs strong, competent leadership to serve the public. This is serious business and we need to straighten this out before we are in the midst of a real storm.

Witnesses

Panel 1

1 - Mr. X. William (Bill) Proenza
Director, Tropical Prediction Center/National Hurricane Center National Centers for Environmental Prediction National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Nat


Panel 2

1 - Dr. Robert M. Atlas
Director Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laborato
Download the Witness Testimony

2 - Mr. Don McKinnon
Director Jones County Emergency Management Agency Jones County Emergency Management Agency
Download the Witness Testimony

3 - Mr. Robie Robinson
Director Dallas County Office of Security and Emergency Management Dallas County Office of Security and Emergency Management
Download the Witness Testimony


Panel 3

1 - Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher
Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Administrator National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator National Oceanic and Atmospheri
Download the Witness Testimony

2 - Dr. James Turner
Deputy Director National Institute of Standards and Technology National Institute of Standards and Technology
Download the Witness Testimony

Witness Panels
Panel 1
Mr. Bill Proenza testifies before the joint Subcommittee hearing
Mr. Proenza
Panel 2
Witnesses take the oath before testifying
L-R: Dr. Atlas, Mr. McKinnon, Mr. Robinson
Panel 3
Adm. Lautenbacher delivers testimony to the Subcommittees
Adm. Lautenbacher
Mr. Turner reads his written statement into the record
Dr. Turner
For information on the witnesses, use the links at left
110th Congress