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Storm center boss isn't just a fair-weather fan

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published December 7, 2006


Xavier William Proenza, who wrote papers about hurricanes as a high school student, will take over in January as director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

As he takes the reins from Max Mayfield, who is retiring after six years as director. Proenza, 62, talked with the St. Petersburg Times about bad weather, good forecasts and how to fight public indifference.

What's in your hurricane kit?

I am living in Colleyville, Texas, so my hurricane kit is being developed as soon as I move to Florida.

Do you have insurance?

I have insurance with State Farm (in Texas).

What was your scariest moment?

On one of our hurricane flights over the Caribbean. ... We lost one of the engines. I believe it was (Hurricane) Betsy in '65. At that point, we lost altitude. But then you realize, a plane is capable of flying on three engines.

What's the worst weather you ever experienced?

I've been all over the country, and I've experienced a little bit of everything. I was in Fort Worth, Texas, when a tornado struck the downtown; I was in Kansas when the snowfall reached over our heads. I was in Hurricane Donna (1960) as a young boy. I flew into Hurricane Betsy (1965) and quite a few other hurricanes, too.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I always had an affinity for science. ... I remember writing papers in high school on tornadoes and hurricanes and the history of hurricanes. I was fascinated by the sheer devastating power of Mother Nature.

What was your worst forecast?

I really can't say. It would be probably along the lines of forecasting a situation where the potential was there for severe weather and we didn't have severe weather.

Do you ever get frustrated with other forecasters?

No, I understand the challenges we all have.

Is there one theme or idea you plan to promote?

I want to bring the public into a feeling of being more aware and prepared. I want the public to take on responsibility and to have preparedness plans as to how their families, businesses and communities deal with severe weather.

Since we had a year with virtually no hurricanes, do you see a greater challenge in getting people to pay attention next year?

I believe it's a challenge we face pretty much every year. I look at census and demographic changes and people tend to be moving to the Southern coast. With that in mind, there will always be new blood coming in and outreach has to be done all the time.

Tell us about your family.

I am divorced since 1996, and I have four grown children, two in Texas and two in Florida. I was born in New York and grew up in South Florida. My dad emigrated from Cuba in 1917. When he went back to Cuba on a visit, he met my mom and they moved here. My sister and I heard Spanish for a couple of years, and I've always maintained an ear for Spanish. I can understand it and speak it, but not as much as I'd like.

When will you be moving here?

Max will officially be out of there Jan. 3 and I will be there shortly thereafter.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love classical music and I'm also in a church choir. ... And of course, my family. I can't tell you enough. Just this weekend I was visiting my mom. She lives in the Fort Lauderdale area. So this is sort of returning home for me.

Career in weather

Proenza, 62, grew up in South Florida and began his career as an intern at the Hurricane Center. He has a degree in meteorology from Florida State University and has worked as a forecaster and administrator. Since 1999, he has been in charge of the weather service's southern region, which includes 1,000 forecasters and other employees in 50 offices from Texas to Florida.