June 16, 2007

Some Things Should Not Be Political

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 2:51 pm

I’ve been following this sorry saga for awhile now, because it’s so utterly typical of bureaucracy, yet thoroughly disgusting. Of all the places where public appearance should be less important than getting it right, the weather agencies should be near the top of the list–yet that seems to be changing. The Weather Service and NOAA seem to be reverting to the pre-1950s era.

In that period, tornadoes were not forecast. The word “tornado” was not used in weather broadcasts, and in fact was banned until 1938. The reasoning for this was that, since the weather agency was unable to forecast tornadoes with much accuracy, false alarms would create panic and make the agency subject to public condemnation. When a military base in Oklahoma, Tinker Air Force Base, began issuing tornado forecasts with a fair amount of accuracy, the Weather Bureau tried to get it to stop, claiming weather forecasting as its own domain. The only result was further public embarrassment, but also, a great advancement in tornado and thunderstorm research, from the necessity of producing a decent forecast.

Here’s what’s been happening a bit more recently.

The Quikscat satellite is a satellite that measures wind patterns, speeds, and directions at the earth’s surface. The satellite often reveals whether a tropical system has developed a closed circulation, which is a requirement for classifying it as a depression rather than an open wave. It also helps reveal wind speeds in tropical storms when they are too far away for the government to send planes to investigate. It’s a highly useful forecasting tool, one that the National Hurricane Center frequently cites in its tropical update products to justify a wind speed. Losing the satellite would result in a 16% decrease in the accuracy of tropical forecasts.

The government has been pushing to decommission the aging satellite without any plans for a replacement. National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza hasn’t been too happy about this, and he’s made some outspoken comments to the media stating the need for a replacement satellite and his complaints with the appropriation of funds for meteorological research and weather forecasting.

In recent interviews with The Miami Herald and other media, Proenza has strongly criticized leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for spending millions of dollars on a public-relations campaign when hurricane forecasters deal with budget shortfalls.

Within days, he got a letter from the acting director of the National Weather Service reprimanding Proenza for suggesting that the agency was in any way crippled by the loss of the satellite. The letter offered “constructive advice” on “how to go forward.” In a bureaucracy, this sort of “constructive advice” is usually backed with a thinly veiled threat.

The posturing hasn’t affected the other forecasters at the NHC, though:

Several forecasters and other staffers at the hurricane center have told The Miami Herald that they fully support Proenza, and his comments have earned compliments from many emergency managers and others.

Additionally, get a load of this. Two words in this demonstrate that it isn’t likely to be just typical bureaucracy in action:

Proenza said that on April 13, he was told by Louis Uccellini, a high-ranking weather service official: “You better stop these QuikScat [and other] complaints. I’m warning you. You have NOAA, DOC [the U.S. Department of Commerce] and the White House pissed off.”

The White House, huh? The same White House that organized the “Mission Accomplished” stunt? The same White House that botched the Katrina response? The same White House that stacked the Justice Department with political hacks and fired competent attorneys who didn’t pursue bogus cases of election-related fraud?

So let’s get this straight. After Katrina, the government spends “millions” on a P.R. campaign to make itself look good, while decommissioning a satellite that aids hurricane forecasts. When the director cries foul and raises Cain to the press about it, it gets the higher-ups, including the most notoriously political White House in history, angry at him, angry enough to issue warnings.

Bill Proenza had better hang on tight. It’s a good thing that this is being brought to light now, so that any attempts at firing him would prompt outcry and calls of foul play. He can outlast this.

After director Max Mayfield retired, there was concern over whether his replacement could possibly fill his shoes. But it seems that Proenza is exactly the sort of no-nonsense straight talker that past directors have been. Should the bureaucrats who value their own media reputation more than human life and property get their way, he’ll be replaced with yet another yes-man for a corrupt, sleazy administration. The forecasters and staff who supported him may be shown the door as well.

But the real price will be paid by the coasts.

1 Comment

  1. Early warning systems for hurricanes are essential. How many more lives would have been lost to Katrina, if the information we had (limited though it was), had been unavailable?

    Comment by Alasandra — June 19, 2007 @ 6:44 am

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