Embattled Hurricane Center Head On Leave

Tuesday, July 10th 2007, 8:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ The director of the National Hurricane Center went on leave Monday, government officials said, four days after many of the center's employees called for his removal because of his comments about an aging weather satellite.

More than 20 of Bill Proenza's nearly 50 staff members signed a statement last week urging federal officials to dismiss him. They said Proenza had undermined public confidence in the center by exaggerating the forecasting problems scientists would face if the satellite failed.

Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the hurricane center, would not say whether Proenza was ordered to take leave or voluntarily left the agency.

He said Proenza is still a NOAA employee, but he would not provide details about Proenza's status, citing privacy laws.

``Beyond that I would discourage further speculation of any sort,'' Franklin said, declining to discuss whether Proenza could return as director.

After staff members released their statement Thursday, Proenza insisted his comments were only to ensure that his forecasters had the best tools and adequate support. He did not return a message left on his cell phone by The Associated Press.

Proenza assumed the job in January, replacing longtime Director Max Mayfield. Among other issues, he was vocal about the need to replace the aging QuikScat satellite used by hurricane forecasters. But the center's staff said Proenza's comments undermined confidence in their predictions.

``Whether Director Proenza was directly reassigned or simply 'forced out,' perhaps one day NOAA will present an appropriate justification for their action. However, sounding the alarm on QuikScat is not justification enough,'' Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. wrote in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Ron Klein also expressed concern about the timing of the change.

``While it is not my responsibility to get in the middle of personnel issues, losing the head of the National Hurricane Center right in the middle of hurricane season greatly concerns me,'' Klein wrote.

Landrieu, Klein and other congressional leaders support a replacement for QuikScat.

Proenza's departure surprised Larry Gispert, an official with the International Association of Emergency Managers, a nonprofit organization of nearly 3,000 emergency professionals that has supported Proenza.

``Not knowing the circumstances, I don't know whether it's good, bad or indifferent,'' Gispert said.

Deputy Director Ed Rappaport was to assume Proenza's duties on an interim basis, center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

``The staff is very focused on the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season and everybody's ready to move forward,'' Feltgen said.

Rappaport declined to comment on his appointment. In November, he took himself out of the running to replace Mayfield, saying he could not make the commitment for personal reasons.

Rappaport has been with the hurricane center since 1987. He was appointed deputy director in 2000.