Lawmakers back ousted hurricane center chief

Two Democrats seek to reinstate Bill Proenza to the position he held before being forced out as the nation's chief hurricane forecaster.

Key Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed support this week for restoring an embattled National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official to the position he held before he was removed as head of the National Hurricane Center.

Reps. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, and Brad Miller, D-N.C., suggested in a Monday letter to a top NOAA administrator that Bill Proenza be reinstated in the position he held prior to arriving at the hurricane center. In the letter, Lampson and Miller said Proenza served "with great distinction" as southern regional director of the National Weather Service. That position is currently vacant.

The letter requested additional documents relating to Proenza's performance and the July performance assessment that resulted in his being suspended as center director just months after being asked to fill the position. The requested documents include any received from the White House.

A similar letter, sent to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, sought documents relating to the assessment, which was performed by a team of Commerce employees. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.

The letters follow a July 19 joint hearing by two House Science and Technology subcommittees to determine if Proenza abused his position by speaking to reporters about the need for equipment upgrades at NOAA.

Proenza drew fire because he said on more than one occasion that the center's QuikSCAT satellite, which provides data necessary for predicting tropical storms and hurricanes, needed updating.

At the hearing, headed by Lampson as chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment and Miller as chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher characterized Proenza's QuikSCAT statements as "potentially detrimental in terms of public confidence in the center's forecasts."

At the same hearing, however, another NOAA director testified that the satellite was "well past its design life."

In the letters, Miller and Lampson praised Proenza's comments, saying they led NOAA to "begin the first real planning for the replacement of this satellite after years of concerns from NOAA staff." They also asked if Proenza was "put into an existing difficult situation without any support from his management."

Witnesses praised Proenza's performance at the National Weather Service. Don McKinnon, who spoke on behalf of the Mississippi Civil Defense/Emergency Management Association, said Proenza was "passionate" about his work and "took [emergency managers'] concerns to heart."

Robie Robinson, who represented the Emergency Managers' Association of Texas, said that "local emergency managers get the weather information we need thanks largely to the programs and leadership of Bill Proenza" and that "the improvements we experienced over the last 10 years would not have occurred without [Proenza's] leadership."

Proenza is on leave, and NOAA plans to reassign him to be training chief for the Silver Spring, Md.-based Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services. He has asked to resume his duties as hurricane center director, but Lampson and Miller did not endorse that request in their letter. A spokeswoman said she "could not comment" on the lawmakers' reasons.

NOAA did not immediately return calls seeking comment.