Posted: 10 July 2007 Updated: 15 September 2007: Fixed a typo and some more comments added.
As always, this essay is purely my opinion. Comments, corrections, and differences of opinion can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org but don't bother if you're not willing to have your views included on this page, along with my response. I'll respect a request for anonymity, but I prefer you have the courage to sign your input.
In January of 2007, I was rather taken aback to learn that Xavier William (Bill) Proenza was the surprise appointee to fill the vacancy left behind by the retirement of Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC). This was a surprise, for a number of reasons:
Soon thereafter, I was informed by the "grapevine" that Bill had been asked to fill in for some relatively short period (on the order of two years) by NWS management, and that his tenure in the job would be relatively brief before handing over the reins to someone else. This might have influenced Bills choice to go on the attack as early as he did. Given Bill's track record of occasionally confrontational interactions with forecasters, as well as his managers, and his tendency to be a forceful advocate for his opinions, I wondered just how this was going to work out. It promised to be an interesting evolution to watch - from a safe distance. Little did I suspect how soon and how public the mess would become.
I want to make it clear that I've not always agreed with Bill's position on various topics, but I've also considered him to be a friend and always respected his opinions, even when we disagreed.
It seems evident to me now that the relationship between Bill and the NHC forecasters was an unhappy one, right from the start. This was, of course, behind the scenes and may have been damaged irreparably by Bill's advocacy that the hurricane warning responsibility should be taken from NHC and given to the individual Weather Forecast Offices (WFO's) in a hurricane's path. Whatever the merits and demerits of that proposed change, it's evident that Bill's management style did not sit well with many of the NHC staff - the forecasters at NHC are rather more "public" than most NWS forecasters and must thrive on the limelight put on them during the hurricane season. They're generally fiercely professional and resent any "interference" by management with their jobs. A clash with Bill may have been inevitable, and NWS management should have seen it coming when Bill was selected. For reasons of his own, it's my understanding that Ed Rappaport (Deputy Director of NHC) declined to bid on the Directorship of NHC when Max Mayfield retired.
Perhaps NWS management did see it coming. It's possible they might have put Bill in a position to fail because they didn't like having to deal with him on the NWS "Corporate Board" - a position he held as a consequence of being Director of the Southern Region. It's my understanding that Bill's service on the board was characterized by his usual outspoken advocacy for his views on how things in the NWS should go. I believe that they wanted him off the Board, and asking him to fill this highly visible position was a way to accomplish that. It's not inconceivable to me that they set him up to fail, in just this way, knowing his style would antagonize the forecasters - his willingness to "go public" was surely well-known by NWS and NOAA management. He behaved in a predictable way and there are only a few people in NOAA who are both smart enough and nasty enough to dream up such a devious plot to get rid of Bill. I hope I'm wrong, because if this was their plan, then they're more cunning and vengeful than I dreamed possible.
Thus, I believe there was controversy right away, behind the scenes. It's interesting to see which staff members signed the petition, but the ones who did not sign are just as eloquent by their absence from the petition. Perhaps no one not on the inside can know all the details of this situation and the reasons for it, but it's evident that it amounted to a "mutiny" by roughly half of the staff, including several of the administrative personnel (who have nothing to do with forecasting). In most cases, such staff mutinies in the NWS would not be "rewarded" with the removal of the offending manager. Far from it - rather, the mutineers likely would have their careers torpedoed below the water line. See my essay about NOAA and NWS management, which generally is militaristic in its devotion to hierarchical position and which has created a "climate of fear" of such proportions in NWS staffers (in general) that no outspokenness is tolerated. NWS forecasters, as a rule, are so fearful of reprisal, they virtually muzzle themselves. Hence, the "mutiny" by many of the NHC forecasters seems out of character for NWS forecasters.
Bill's move to criticize NOAA for its fiscal irresponsibility (spending millions of its budget on PR!) and lack of support for forecasting infrastructure (including, but not limited to, the QUICKSCAT satellite) seemed, on its surface, to be a courageous challenge to the NOAA and NWS management "powers" to help forecasters before they waste their budgets on useless crap. At face value, this seems to be Bill standing up for his team. However, it now seems apparent that Bill's courage was not necessarily appreciated by at least some of the very people it was ostensibly seeking to serve - his forecasters.
The public discussion (via the media) of the forecast value of QUICKSCAT quickly degenerated. Early on, Bill suggested that its loss might mean a degradation of forecasts by "up to 16%" - based on one study. The mutinous forecasters were quick to say that Bill was not expressing their position accurately, and another study was cited to suggest that the 16% figure was an exaggeration. Note that Bill said up to 16%, not that it would be exactly 16% - but this subtlety (like most scientific subtleties) was lost on many in the media (and among many of the influential bloggers). Soon, the blogger idiots were saying that Bill had misrepresented the science and so should resign. From my clearly jaundiced perspective, if every NOAA and NWS manager who misrepresented the science were to be removed from his/her position immediately, virtually every organization in NOAA and the NWS would be decapitated instantly! NOAA and NWS managers generally are not very well-versed in science, so their public statements often include misrepresentations that can be egregious, at times. This is a virtually ubiquitous phenomenon. Removing a manager of the basis of misrepresenting the science is a bogus argument and not even remotely worthy of consideration. NOAA and NWS managers routinely misrepresent the science, including Bill's "superiors" within the system and (Dare I say it?), even some of his own forecasters! Who can say that they speak for the science? To even think about representing the science would be an act of hubris, indeed. We all have our own ideas, but within science, the discussion is carried out in the refereed scientific literature - not in the media!
Bill was reprimanded for making statements critical of NOAA and NWS management decisions in the media. As already noted, being a "team player" in NOAA and the NWS evidently requires one to knuckle under to the "company line" no matter how egregiously wrong it seems to be. Disagreement and criticism is routinely muzzled and suppressed, to the point that most forecasters fear to speak out about anything. NOAA and NWS managers demand unswerving loyalty, while giving virtually none in return. If the NOAA and NWS emperors have no clothes, no employee dares to say so!
The mutinous forecasters were quick to accuse Bill of divisiveness and actions contrary to the best interests of NHC and its public credibility. For myself, I'd prefer to work for a manager with the courage to take on his/her "superiors" in the team, especially when s/he was advocating an increase in budgetary support for forecasting infrastructure. These mutineers apparently felt otherwise. Perhaps they have their own reasons for this, and I'll never know exactly what went on behind closed doors at NHC. But I'm confident that the media presentations are far from complete - there's likely to be many more complex factors in this tragic evolution than will ever be known to the public.
Lest anyone believe that I'm wholly supportive of Bill's actions, allow me to discuss what I think he did wrong.
First of all, Bill was an "outsider" to the NHC staff. A really good manager (exceedingly rare within NOAA and the NWS!) would have spent a lot more time learning about the situation at NHC before he went public with some controversial suggestions for NHC, even if he thought he was acting on behalf of the staff. Given that Bill was not a long-time tropical cyclone forecaster, it would have been far more prudent to take a lower profile for a couple of years. He could have gotten two hurricane seasons under his belt, learning how to deal with the spotlight that is inevitably shone on the NHC Director. Gaining public support by performing well in a highly visible position during the hurricane season would have been valuable in taking on the bureaucrats. But Bill fired before he loaded his guns. In the absence of at least two year's experience, Bill could not have had a clear vision of how to change things at NHC. Rocking the boat big-time before the end of six months as NHC Director was definitely a mistake. Perhaps he felt his temporary tenure left him no time to develop his situation with the staff.
Bill also evidently alienated st least some of his forecasters, perhaps by continuing to advocate a position he had developed as Southern Region Director - that the WFOs should be given the responsibility for hurricane warnings while NHC continues to issue the hurricane watches. I'm not going to comment about my feelings regarding this position - but, given my experience with SELS/SPC, it's obvious to me that forecasters regard any such reduction in their responsibility with suspicion and hostility. This may have poisoned the relationship between Bill and at least some of his staff early and irreparably. Even if that's what happened, it was both premature and ill-advised to antagonize his staff without hearing them out regarding this (or any other) issue. Perhaps he did hear them out, but the public pronouncements by the mutineers suggests to me that he might not have. And to ignore the advice of some of his forecasters would not be inconsistent with the Bill Proenza I know.
Finally, when Bill attacked NOAA and NWS management via the media, he did something I admire. But if you're going to take on "the system" via the media, you'd better have your ducks pretty well lined up. Given what we now know was a seething internal conflict with several of his forecasters, Bill was on shaky ground from which to launch an attack. Initially, with what seemed to be sympathetic media and some supportive legislators, I thought Bill was stronger than he turned out to be. The lesson is clear to me: if you're going to tilt at the windmills of the bureaucracy from a management position, you must have the grassroots support of your staff. Apparently, Bill alienated far too many of them. They may have served unwittingly as pawns for the NOAA and NWS management bureaucrats. Bill was defeated from within, despite starting his crusade from what seemed to be a strong position. Bill apparently didn't feel he needed the support of his staff - if so, that was a mistake that cost him his job.
Now, we have the NHC in disarray. Clearly, there is a deep division within the staff: those who signed the infamous petition and those who didn't sign it. I expect continuing internal strife regarding this for some time to come. The new acting Director, Ed Rappaport, has apparently been "drafted" to serve, despite whatever personal reasons he might have had in January for not wanting the job. Like it or not, it will be up to him to try to heal the internal wounds and to reassure the public that NHC is going to be able to do their job successfully. He'd better hope that there are no major forecasting screw-ups during this rapidly-approaching hurricane season. A failed forecast for a major hurricane disaster - a not implausible possibility even with NHC operating at the peak of its capabilities - would be a PR disaster. This for an organization that survived Hurricane Katrina with their positive reputation virtually unsullied, even as some other government agencies were crucified in the media (in most cases, with justification). I don't envy Ed Rappaport at all - if he didn't want the job earlier, would he want it more after this public mess? For the moment, he's the acting Director, but I have to believe he'd be delighted to step aside in favor of someone else. But who? The NHC Director doesn't look quite so attractive as it might have before - with a potentially mutinous staff and the sword of Damocles hanging over the Director's head, is there anyone willing to take it on? Of course, they'll find someone ...
The mutineers may be congratulating themselves for their success in ousting an unpopular NHC Director - but they'd better watch their backs. NOAA and NWS managers may have used them to get rid of Bill, but their mutinous actions will place them under suspicion in the future. I'd guess that some careers could be affected negatively by this. Traitors can be useful, but they often are vilified and despised by those who used them in the first place. I predict that some or all of them will wind up regretting having signed that petition, especially those among the administrative staff. Curiously, a substantial part of the administrative staff signed the petition. They wouldn't have done so with some reason - perhaps they were supporting the revolt by the forecasters, or perhaps they had reasons of their own that had nothing to do with forecasting. Was Bill a hard man to work for? Quite possibly, but I'll likely never know for sure. Such an administrative revolt seems unprecedented, in my experience. What might the next Director think, inheriting this "support" group?
The real problem, as I see it, continues to be a continuing decline in the quality and integrity of NOAA and NWS management. I won't repeat all the content of my rant about these folks, but in the long run, anything that reinforces their perception of their power over the staffs will result in deepening problems within the organization. Bill was taking on that management and, as a result, he had my support, however mistaken he might have been in his tactical decisions. I definitely am not happy to see my friend Bill suffer this humiliating defeat. Whatever his failings (who among us has none?), he remains a dedicated public servant with the courage of his convictions intact. He should hold his head high, actually. Even a great man makes mistakes.
For me, there have been no winners in this deal, only losers. If this was a Machiavellian plot, then the plotters may feel as if they won, but they've always been losers and a successful plot on their part wouldn't change that. NOAA and NWS management did not come out of this looking very good. The staff at NHC has lost, whether they realize that or not. Bill has lost his credibility and his job and seems destined for retirement soon. And the public has lost. It will take years for the effects of this mess to subside. In the meantime, within the bureaucracy, the beat goes on ...
As of 21 July, I've watched the four hours of hearings in Congress. Despite their pontifications regarding the goals of their hearings, it's apparent to me that these hearings were mostly about politics. The political leanings of the two parties were apparently the most important part for the politicians. Only occasionally did the testimony really pertain to the substance of the issues. I was frequently depressed to see the tone of the questions from those members of Congress seeking to reduce the issues to those of personnel topics. Although it's clear to me that there are some personnel issues:
there's far more to this debate than personnel issues. Bill has raised important questions that deserve to be answered.
Bill has consistently spent his entire NWS career seeking to improve the ability of organizations under his control to serve the public. At no point has there been the slightest hint that his actions were self-serving or contrary to the needs and interests of his staff. I might disagree with his tactics at times, but I've never seen any evidence that his guidance would have been detrimental to the mission of his organization. Bill has always been outspoken and, as discussed above, I'm willing to consider as plausible the hypothesis that this might have been a nefarious plot by NOAA bureaucrats (notably, a recently-promoted former Director of the NWS) to remove Bill from the NWS Cop orate Board and, ultimately, from any responsible position in the NWS - his persistent opposition to CONOPS has angered these bureaucrats. The testimony during the hearings has made it even more evident to me that the invasion by the investigative team has enabled the unprecedented "mutiny" by half of the staff of NHC. If the truth be known, the number of managers who've lost the confidence of their staffs in the NWS would be substantial - yet, those staffs have never, up to this point, been willing to sign a public petition to remove their supervisor. It's evident to me that the NHC staff was enabled by the presence of the investigative team, to sign this petition. Without that upper-level "support", it seems an unprecedented step for the staff to "mutiny" in this public way. If the truth be known, if all NWS managers who had lost the support of the majority of their staffs were to lose their positions, there would be a lot of vacancies in the Senior Executive Service! That would include the former Admiral, the former General, and many others in the NOAA/NWS bureaucracy.
Ultimately, the hearings were evidently without any substantive result. The science has lost, as well as the public, and the NWS. If NOAA lost, in the process, I refuse to mourn. They have come across very badly, in my opinion, and deserve any negative publicity they receive.
I find it intriguing that there was no testimony by NHC forecasters, by the NCEP Director, and the acting Director of the NWS. I hope that the NHC staff, including some that did, and some that did not, sign the petition will eventually be called upon to testify. I want to hear what the signers and the non-signers have to say about this mess. The ugly nature of management by NOAA's and NWS should be investigated more thoroughly, in my opinion.
It would be interesting to know what went on to allow Bill to return to Southern Region Headquarters. What sort of deals were struck? Why were particular choices made? Whatever transpired to keep Bill from retiring and/or being transferred inside a closet somewhere in the DC area, it now seems that Bill has returned to the NWS Corporate Board! In his regained position, of course, he automatically is on the Corporate Board, again. He's outlasted certain high NOAA officials and survived with his pride intact. Good for him. I wish I could be a fly on the wall the first time Bill returns to the Corporate Board meetings. Despite the relatively good ending for Bill, however, the systematic failings in NOAA and NWS management remain and the NHC's black eye has not yet healed. Hence, I still see the story as overall a sad one.