MIAMI — The weather in the hurricane zone remains mild, but the storm in the hurricane center is about to intensify again.
A congressional subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on the management crisis at the National Hurricane Center and expects to hear testimony from former director Bill Proenza and the supervisor who ousted him.
Though they are set to testify at different times, the hearing could produce a good bit of heat between Proenza, who lost his job after criticizing his bosses and alienating much of his staff, and Conrad C. Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who lowered the boom on Proenza last week.
In addition, the NOAA team that conducted a snap inspection of the center in West Miami-Dade County, investigating Proenza's six-month reign there, is scheduled to deliver its report Friday.
"I thought this thing was almost over, but it keeps haunting us," said Lixion Avila, a senior forecaster at the hurricane center.
The witness list and other early indications suggested that the congressional hearing would be weighted in favor of Proenza and against Lautenbacher and NOAA.
Nevertheless, Anson Franklin, NOAA's director of communications, said the agency would cooperate. "We're currently working on the details of the hearing with committee staff," he said.
Earlier this month, the contentious affair seemed to climax with a mutiny against Proenza by most senior forecasters and much of the staff. Last Monday, Lautenbacher placed Proenza on indefinite leave and put deputy director Ed Rappaport in charge of the center.
Now, led by ranking Democrats who have criticized NOAA management in the recent past, a panel of the House Committee on Science and Technology is getting into the act. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce also is involved, with both groups seeking e-mail and other documents.
"Our committees are deeply concerned about the turmoil that has engulfed the center and about several of your actions, which may have partially created this volatile situation," five ranking House Democrats said in a letter to Lautenbacher that requested a wholesale turnover of material related to the affair.
Even before the hearing begins, however, some committee members and staffers appear to have decided on the session's narrative thread and conclusion.
An investigator for the panel has been talking to Proenza's supporters at the hurricane center, The Miami Herald has learned, but few - if any - of his critics.
"Our preliminary work seems to indicate that Mr. Proenza is another victim of retaliation by the administration for speaking out on issues that Congress and the American people need to hear," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of a House energy subcommittee, said in a news release.
Democrats on the House committees have had NOAA in their sights for some time, with two ranking members earlier this year calling for Lautenbacher's removal over perceived failures to maintain or improve the nation's weather satellite capabilities.
Now, the committees have requested reams of Proenza-related e-mail and other correspondence between Lautenbacher and seven NOAA, National Weather Service or hurricane center officials, including Rappaport and executive officer Ahsha Tribble, who joined the center's staff last year.
In that request, the committees refer to anonymous comments posted on Internet message boards alleging that "the staff was pressured to sign" a well-publicized protest letter that called for Proenza's dismissal.
Avila and senior forecaster James Franklin, who both joined the rebellion and have not been contacted by the committees, strongly denied that assertion.
"That's ridiculous," James Franklin said. "There was no pressure from NOAA, no pressure from anyone at all. We organized it ourselves. It was a bunch of employees trying to understand each other better."
At the center of the dispute is Proenza's public criticism of NOAA for not yet replacing the important but slowly dying QuikScat weather satellite. He also has criticized NOAA for spending millions of dollars on an anniversary celebration while $700,000 was cut from a promising hurricane research project.
His critics said that he overemphasized QuikScat's contribution and raised the issue in a way that undermined public confidence in hurricane forecasts. Some employees also complained about his management style and truthfulness.
His supporters praised him for raising public awareness of the satellite issue and for publicizing budget shortfalls for hurricane research.
Many scientists at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory on Virginia Key - people who work closely with hurricane forecasters - back Proenza and gave him a certificate of appreciation last Friday.
"He received tremendous applause from all present," said Bob Atlas, the lab's director, who is on the witness list and said he would testify Thursday. "It was just resounding applause."