Morale storm subsides at U.S. hurricane center

Leadership changes were made in January.

McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI — Last year’s leadership crisis and staff mutiny at the National Hurricane Center exposed deep-rooted personal and departmental jealousies and frustrations that left many employees thoroughly demoralized, according to a study by independent experts.

The study found that support personnel described hurricane forecasters as “prima donnas,” “elitist” and “arrogant,” female employees struggled to be heard, managers allowed problems to fester and some “introverted” scientists were intimidated into silence.

On a 1-to-5 scale, the average response when asked about overall morale was 2.

“Over time, the staff has muddled and struggled through changes in strategic direction, leadership, negative media attention and an ongoing, complex set of unresolved conflicts,” said the 41-page study, recently distributed to the center’s employees. A copy was obtained late last week by The Miami Herald.

All 34 employees surveyed for the study asserted that the problems — though sweeping and persistent — did not damage the center’s forecasts or seriously affect other duties during the June 1-Nov. 30 hurricane season.

But the study’s authors said the results were troubling anyway.

“One hundred percent of the respondents said staff pulls together during a storm to accomplish their mutual missions; however, breakdowns tend to occur during the off season,” said the study, commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the world-renowned hurricane center.

The survey of staff morale was conducted in December and January by International Training Associates in the wake of last year’s staff mutiny. The revolt ultimately resulted in the ouster of director Bill Proenza, who was there six months. He was reassigned after repeatedly criticizing his superiors in Washington and alienating many of his forecasters and other employees, who said he misrepresented some scientific issues and was moving too quickly to change procedures.

New director Bill Read, who took over in January and has earned generally favorable reviews from the staff, said the report “probably makes things look a little worse than they really are.”

“My goal was to address most of these issues within my first year and I think we’re seeing improvements already,” Read said.

The study found that:

U Serious friction exists between the center’s three main units, which are supposed to work in close harmony:

The 10 hurricane forecasters; the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch, which produces more than 100 forecasts of ocean conditions every day of the year; and the Technical Support Branch, which gathers data and provides logistical assistance.

U “Stereotyping and misperception of staff and units” served as a primary contributor to tension between the units.

“The hurricane specialists are seen as ‘prima donnas,’ ‘elitist,’ ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-centered.’ TAFB is the ‘red-headed step child,’ ‘discontent,’ ‘no identity’ and ‘second-class citizen.’ TSB is ‘invisible,’ ‘second-class citizen’ and ‘low within the caste system.”’

In fairness, it should be noted that hurricane forecasters sign their names to their advisories and are under enormous pressure — a mistake could result in mass casualties or needless evacuations.

“For no intentional purpose at all, the focus on the hurricane center is going to be on hurricanes,” Read said. “When you’re in the limelight, it’s easy for people to view you the wrong way — and that can be in both directions.”

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