Bill Proenza didn't deal with even one hurricane while serving as director of the National Hurricane Center. In a move to restore order among his rebellious staff, he was removed on Monday after only six months on the job.
He was placed on leave "until further notice" and remains an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, federal officials said. While that elated many employees at the hurricane center in Miami-Dade County, others, including members of Congress, wondered whether it was enough to ensure forecasts will be as accurate as possible.
Ed Rappaport, 49, the center's deputy director and a 19-year veteran of hurricane forecasting, was named acting director, calming flames of controversy just in time as the meanest stretch of the hurricane season -- August, September and October -- fast approaches.
"I think everyone benefits from the standpoint of not having the squabbling taking place," said Ken Reeves, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, based in State College, Pa.
Ultimately, Proenza's call to replace a doomed satellite was his undoing, officials said.
In saying the eventual demise of QuikSCAT would significantly hurt hurricane forecast accuracy, he misinformed the public and eroded confidence in the center, observers said. The reason: Even without QuikSCAT, forecasters still have the technological firepower to issue skillful predictions.
"You have to start with the science and if you don't understand the science in this business, you shouldn't be doing it," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of the Weather Underground, a popular online weather site.
He, along with about half the hurricane center's staff, including many of its top forecasters, last week called for Proenza to resign.
Proenza, 62, was unavailable for comment on Monday. He returned to Fort Worth, Texas, his previous hometown, to "take care of personal business," officials said. His exact status remained undisclosed because of the federal Privacy Act.
"Bill Proenza continues to serve as a NOAA employee. I can't go into any further details," said Anson Franklin, NOAA spokesman.
Reaction to Proenza's departure was swift.
"At the end of the day, the hurricane center's mission is about saving lives," said Florida's Republican U.S. senator, Mel Martinez. "It's important that recent circumstances do not overshadow the center's mission, especially since we are in the midst of hurricane season; swift action became necessary."
Though he hopes the hurricane center can "move forward," Bill Nelson, Florida's Democratic senator, still was uneasy.
"I'm troubled by budget shortfalls in the weather agency, not to mention the failure to properly plan for replacing an aging weather satellite that gives forecasters valuable information," he said. "The administration needs to fix this mess and fix it now."
U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who had strongly supported finding funding for a QuikSCAT replacement, questioned Proenza's removal.
"While it is not my responsibility to get in the middle of personnel issues, losing the head of the National Hurricane Center right in the middle of hurricane season greatly concerns me," he said.
Though Rappaport enjoys strong support from the hurricane center staff, he now faces challenges. He must guide the center as well as the nation through the roughest months of the hurricane season, all the while trying to restore a semblance of normalcy.
Many in the emergency management sector, who largely depend on hurricane center accuracy to do their jobs, are behind Rappaport.
"We have total confidence in Acting Director Ed Rappaport, the forecasters and the forecast products of the National Hurricane Center," said Craig Fugate, Florida's director of emergency management.
Yet Larry Gispert, vice president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, representing more than 3,600 emergency managers, said too many questions remain.
"All I know is we have not heard anything nor have we had proof that he should not be director of the National Hurricane Center," Gispert said. "In that case, our organization stands 100 percent behind him as we have throughout this whole thing."
In a letter to the hurricane center's staff on Monday, Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA's top administrator, said changes were needed after a team of federal inspectors found a high level of anxiety and disruption at the center enough that forecasting staff was "threatened" from fulfilling its mission.
Rappaport initially was thought to be the front-runner for hurricane center director when Max Mayfield announced he would retire in August of last year. But because of unspecified personal issues, Rappaport declined to apply.
Mayfield said he expects Rappaport will do a "superb job." At the same time, he lamented that Proenza so quickly fell into trouble.
"It's too bad. He's worked over 40 years in weather service and made a great contribution," Mayfield said.
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer Maya Bell contributed to this report.
Ken Kaye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-385-7911.