NWS Veteran/NHC Head Ousted Amid Controversy
A thirty-year veteran of the NWS, Bill Proenza became director of the National Hurricane Center in 2007, but was put on administrative leave following a veritable staff mutiny. Proenza had spoken bluntly about agency budget issues in public, criticizing recent budget cuts and arbitrary expenditures. One of few NWS senior managers who spoke out against the NOAA consolidation/rebranding issue (see below), Proenza was moved to the NHC around the same time. See below for ensuing controversy:
Following the high-profile success of the NHC and NWS in predicting Katrina, NOAA executives attempted a corporate-style rebranding of the NWS and associated appropriations restructuring. NOAA ordered the NHC to remove all NWS logos on their products and replace them with NOAA logos. The proposal was withdrawn following resistance from the then-NHC director and House appropriations subcommittee—as well as vigorous protests from within the meteorological community. Bill Proenza (see above) also figured into the controversy when he criticized parent company NOAA for spending on bicentennial festivities amid budget cuts for hurricane research. Other critics in the weather community claimed that President Bush’s proposed budget leaves no funding at all for hurricane research flights.
NWS Modifications of Common Alerting Protocol (CAP)
Amid President Bush’s plan to overhaul the country’s emergency warning system in the wake of Katrina, some raised concerns about NWS’s alleged modifications to a major emergency warning standard, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a national open standard for universal alert messaging. Developed by industry and emergency managers, the protocol was adopted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards in 2003, endorsed by the Emergency Management Agency in 2004, and in use by a number of government agencies. The original CAP architect and a California emergency management official, Art Botterell, protested the NOAA/NWS development of what he called a “dumbed-down” version of CAP.
In September of 2005, amid the chaos surrounding the federal government’s response to the Katrina disaster, NWS officials testified before the House that they did everything within their power to inform federal, state and local authorities of the severity of the hurricane in the days leading up to the storm.
Around the same time, while the NWSD bill was still in committee, Sen. Santorum criticized the NWS forecast of Katrina, claiming that more lives could have been saved if the agency’s focus was more firmly on severe weather. However, public and professional opinion—as well as that of lawmakers, generally affirmed that the NWS forecasting had been more than adequate. In detailed warnings to officials and public announcements, the NWS relayed their prediction that the hurricane would be a Category 4 when it hit, and that it was headed to Southeast Louisiana and New Orleans, a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. (The Fox News article mentioned above, however, claims that the agency lagged well behind Accuweather in predicting the Katrina disaster).
Public v. Private and the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005
Since 1991, an NWS non-competition policy has prohibited (or at least, discouraged) the agency from providing the same types of specialized information and services sold by private weather companies. In December of 2004, the NOAA changed that policy by removing the relevant prohibitive language—rather stating that the agency would “give due consideration” to private-sector companies. But well before that, the NWS had begun offering an increasing amount of free forecasting data, statistics and weather information to the public through its websites. By 2005 the agency was under fire, with critics from the private sector claiming that they had overstepped their bounds by competing with private weather companies that sell such detailed weather information to specific markets (farmers, business, etc.).
In April 2005, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), claiming the agency’s new policy improperly allowed the NWS and parent NOAA to expand into areas already served by the commercial industry, introduced the National Weather Service Duties Act to the 109th Congress. The bill was intended to limit the duties and responsibilities of the (NWS), eliminating the agency as a competitor for the private sector weather industry. Had it been enacted, the bill could have resulted in far-reaching industry restructuring, requiring everyone from pilots to farmers to purchase weather data through private companies.
Santorum’s bill failed to find sponsorship in the Senate and died in committee. The bill had little support outside the commercial weather industry, and was criticized by the public for threatening to force crucial data—already paid for by tax dollars—through commercial channels.
Additionally, Santorum was accused of political impropriety because one of his constituents, Joel Myers, the head of a Pennsylvania-based weather company, was also a campaign contributor. In a 2005 Computer World article, Myers stated that private weather companies want NWS to continue providing free public weather information, but to curb efforts to provide the specialized data and forecasts that are central to private weather industry profits.
Many consider the following piece by Fox news to be propaganda for the private sector in the debate over NWS’s non-competition policy. (The article levels exaggerated criticisms of incompetence and inaccuracy against the agency, while praising Accuweather—the company featured in the Santorum initiative, whose Vice President was also a Santorum campaign contributor):
Does Government Weather Forecasting Endanger Lives
? (by John Lott, Fox News)