WASHINGTON — The turmoil at the National Hurricane Center jeopardized its forecasts, director Bill Proenza was a disruptive force and should not return, and managers now must reassure the public and restore morale at the center, an inspection team told Congress on Thursday.
The team's final report, released during a four-hour hearing, said Proenza had needlessly worried coastal residents, muzzled and alienated his staff and may have intentionally misrepresented his scientists' views.
The management crisis, which has fractured the hurricane center into pro-Proenza, anti-Proenza and neutral camps, still rages as the heart of the storm season approaches — though all sides say they can and will work together to produce accurate forecasts.
A defiant Proenza told a congressional committee that he was eager to return to the center and "repair bruised relationships."
But the harsh report left little doubt that he was finished there — and Proenza ultimately seemed to draw the same conclusion about his future.
"It may not be at the National Hurricane Center," he said after leaving the hearing room. "I don't know what the options will be."
Said Max Mayfield, Proenza's predecessor, who retired in January: "I don't see how anybody could read that report and think that Bill Proenza will come back to the hurricane center."
In the wake of friction with his managers in Washington and a staff mutiny at the center, Proenza was placed on indefinite leave last week after just six months at the facility near Miami.
In its report, the team — which said it acted with independence, though it was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — criticized NOAA for what it called the "rushed" appointment of Proenza.
It concluded that the "negative work environment" Proenza helped create would have "a major deleterious impact on the center's ability to fulfill its mission" if he returned to the facility, also known as the Tropical Prediction Center.
"The current TPC director should be reassigned and not be allowed to return to his position at the center," the team wrote. "This should be done due to his failure to demonstrate leadership within the TPC rather than his public statements about the QuikScat satellite or NOAA leadership."
Proenza had criticized NOAA for not swiftly replacing the QuikScat satellite, which is beyond its planned lifespan. He also condemned the agency for spending millions of dollars on an anniversary celebration while forecasters and researchers dealt with budget shortfalls.
Addressing the issue of most importance to everyone in the hurricane zone, the inspection team said that forecasters and others at the center "are highly dedicated to achieving the mission of saving lives and protecting property."
But in a biting appraisal of Proenza, it also said that "the short-term ability of the TPC to provide accurate and timely information was put at risk due to the TPC director's disruptive conduct and the lack of trust between many staff and the director."
Proenza vigorously defended himself during more than an hour of testimony to members of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
He said he was being punished for his complaints about QuikScat and for bucking management in other ways.
"I dared to call attention to it and, by golly, I'm going to pay the price for bringing this to the American people," he said. "I have been chastised, threatened, recommended for reassignment and discredited after 40 years of service to my country."
The committee also heard from NOAA chief Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who said he ordered the team to conduct a snap inspection of the hurricane center after seven of the nine hurricane specialists and others appealed for help in dealing with Proenza.
They said they were being muzzled by him, feared retribution from him and lacked confidence in his knowledge of the hurricane program, Lautenbacher said.
"Had we failed to act, we would have been derelict in our duties as public servants charged with protecting people's lives," he said.
Nevertheless, Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, and other Democrats expressed skepticism over the chain of events, suspecting that the Bush administration was punishing Proenza for being a whistleblower.
They demanded more e-mail from NOAA and said Lautenbacher still had some explaining to do. Lautenbacher chose Proenza in December 2006 for the job, despite Proenza's reputation as a maverick within NOAA.
"Either Mr. Proenza was the wrong choice or it was premature to send in the assessment team," Lampson said. "We cannot afford any more bad decisions. It's hurricane season."
Some Republican members had another view.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said Lautenbacher had no choice but to take strong action in view of the "staff revolt — a ticking time bomb that has apparently gone off."
(Merzer reports for The Miami Herald.)