The Buzz


Just in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season, storm clouds have settled over the National Weather Service. Bill Proenza, director of the widely heralded NWS National Hurricane Center, started hurling lightning bolts almost as soon as he was ensconced in the job in January. The center is short on funds, a key weather satellite is being allowed to degrade with no replacement in sight, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to steal the center's thunder, Proenza has charged.

During the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans in April, he said: "The amount of money being invested in the hurricane warning system isn't up to the level of threat that hurricanes present to this nation. This must be considered the largest natural disaster threat to this country."

He also noted the pending demise of QuickSCAT, a satellite launched in 1999 with a planned life of five years. It provides data to measure wind speed and direction in storms far out to sea. Proenza predicts two-day hurricane forecasts would be degraded by 10 percent and three-day predictions by 16 percent if the satellite is lost.

Meanwhile, Proenza and other forecasters are pouring invective on NOAA for attempting to append its logo to the center and NWS and for lavishly spending on another branding effort, the agency's 200th anniversary, while the center's budget is flat-lining. NOAA is spending up to $4 million celebrating, while it has cut hurricane research by $700,000, according to Proenza.

"Mr. Proenza just took over as the head of the hurricane center and he is known for being a very strong and forceful advocate for his programs. And that's one reason we love him," NOAA chief Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. told National Public Radio on May 23.

In late May, NOAA predicted a 75 percent chance that hurricane season will be worse than normal this year.

In Iraq to Stay

While Washington is trying to figure out how to get out of Iraq-sooner or later-huge cranes loom over the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, erecting the biggest U.S. embassy in the world. More than 20 buildings on 104 acres-about the size of the Vatican in Rome-are slated to open in September.

Not too soon for the nearly 1,000 staffers now dodging mortars and rockets in temporary digs in a decaying Saddam Hussein palace in the Green Zone. In May, staffers were ordered to wear flak jackets and helmets outdoors and inside unprotected buildings. Many go home to unprotected trailers.

The new embassy will be shielded from attacks and the daily exigencies of life in the besieged city. Its walls are blast resistant, and it will have its own water, power and waste treatment, as well as a gym, pool, commissary and food court. It will have desk space for 1,000, but secure apartments for only 615. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker apparently is under pressure to pare the 1,000-person staff to fit the number of apartments.

The $592 million contract to build the embassy is held by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a subcontractor to KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary. First Kuwaiti was identified as exploiting low-paid workers from Nepal in a 2005 report in The Chicago Times.

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