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Storm Warnings For Hurricane Chief

Nearly half the National Hurricane Center's employees have urged the federal government to replace their boss, saying they need to return their focus to protecting people from dangerous tropical weather.

A growing number of staffers believe that center Director Bill Proenza has damaged public confidence in their ability to forecast storms. Proenza has repeatedly and publicly criticized the government for failing to provide enough funding and to replace an aging weather satellite.

"The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake," the 23 staffers said in a letter. "The staff of the National Hurricane Center would like nothing more than to return its focus to its primary mission of protecting life and property from hazardous tropical weather, and leave the political arena it now finds itself in."

Proenza did not return a message on his cell phone Thursday night after the staffers released the statement. But earlier in the day, he said he spoke to two of the forecasters who previously called for his ouster, and was confident they would be able to resolve the problems.

He blamed much of the problems on a Commerce Department team sent this week to review the center's ability to provide accurate and timely information, and whether its management and organizational structure helps achieve its mission.

The team's report is due by July 20 to the department, which oversees the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the hurricane center's parent agency.

"Quite frankly the investigative team coming on and all the hoopla has just created a little bit of an atmosphere that a few people in the office said, 'Let's get rid of the static,'" Proenza said in a telephone interview.

The letter from staffers included most of the senior and front-line forecasters who keep the public informed when hurricanes and tropical storms threaten. Computer workers and Proenza's secretary also signed the letter.

They say the timing of the center's problems is bad, as hurricane season is about to enter what are normally its busiest months.

Senior hurricane specialist James Franklin said in a telephone interview that Proenza had misrepresented what would happen if a key satellite called QuikScat failed. It is past its expected lifespan and is on a backup transmitter.

Proenza has said since March that if it failed, forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate. But Franklin said that while the satellite is important, it would not critically hurt forecasts.

One of the staffers who signed the letter, senior hurricane specialist Richard Knabb, had previously said that losing QuikScat would damage forecast ability.

Proenza does still have the support of some staffers, although Franklin said about 70 percent of those who read the statement agreed with it.

Franklin said he wanted the public to know that the center was still able to give accurate forecasts.

"We have forecasters on duty right now that are doing their jobs. They will continue to do their jobs," he said.

A telephone message left for NOAA's Washington office was not immediately returned.