MIAMI - Three senior forecasters at the National Hurricane Center called Tuesday for the ouster of recently appointed director Bill Proenza, saying he has damaged public confidence in their forecasts, fractured morale and lost their support.
"I don't think that Bill can continue here," said James Franklin, one of five senior forecasters at the center. "I don't think he can be an effective leader."
Two others - Richard Pasch and Rick Knabb - told The Miami Herald that they concur.
"We need a change of leadership here at the hurricane center," Pasch said. "It's pretty much as simple as that."
The open rebellion flared as an "assessment team" dispatched by Proenza's superiors in Washington spent a second day at the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade County. The team is trying to determine if forecasters can fulfill their mission under the outspoken and controversial director.
Some forces expressed support for Proenza, but with pressure intensifying from within and without, Proenza's grip on the $150,000-a-year job he accepted just six months ago seemed increasingly at risk.
He said late Tuesday that he will not resign and blamed the center's morale problems on "Washington harassment," a reference to a letter of reprimand he received last month and the unannounced inspection by five federal officials, including a lawyer who specializes in personnel matters.
"It is my intention to continue to be the director of the National Hurricane Center and not in any way hesitate to do what I need to do," said Proenza, 62, a weather service forecaster and manager for more than 40 years. "We are ready to carry out our mission and we will move forward."
Since taking the most prominent government job in meteorology, Proenza repeatedly has criticized his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saying they have not provided the hurricane center with adequate research funds and failed to plan for the eventual demise of an important weather satellite.
He has been widely viewed as the underdog in a David vs. Goliath battle against the federal bureaucracy, a scenario the forecasters called misleading.
"The public debate has been extremely one-sided," said Franklin, who has been at the hurricane center since 1999 and with NOAA since 1982. "Bill is viewed as a hero in the media for speaking up against NOAA management and he is portrayed as having the support of his staff.
"But the hurricane specialists, by and large, do not agree with much of what he has done," Franklin said.
In any event, as the drama played itself out, the climate at the hurricane center turned stormy. Some lower-ranking members of the staff support Proenza and shouting matches between the two camps erupted Tuesday, several people said.
The tensions and distractions come at an inopportune time.
The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. It has been relatively tame so far, but forecasters monitored a disturbance Tuesday in the Atlantic and said the tropics were likely to heat up later this month or in August.
Craig Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management, originally supported Proenza, but said Tuesday he is growing concerned about the situation.
"It certainly is disconcerting that we are now dealing with these issues in the middle of the hurricane season," Fugate said.
Should Proenza stay or go?
"I think NOAA needs to make a decision," Fugate said. "Whether Bill stays or leaves, there has to be a resolution and they have to move on very quickly."
At the same time, everyone on both sides of the battle - and some knowledgeable outsiders - insisted that the hurricane center is fully prepared to meet its obligations.
"The public has to know that the staff of the National Hurricane Center is still intact and it is a superb staff and their forecasts will be as good as ever," said former director Max Mayfield.
Mayfield said he spoke with Proenza late Monday and again Tuesday morning and advised him to make peace with his high-ranking forecasters.
"I told him that he needs to be listening to his staff," Mayfield said.
Forecaster Lixion Avila, who ignited the public phase of the rebellion Monday night in comments to The Miami Herald that were critical of Proenza, said Tuesday that he was not ready to join the call for Proenza's departure.
"I've lost a little bit of faith in him," Avila said, "but I don't want to be part of his removal or support him to stay."
The fifth senior forecaster, Jack Beven, was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Staff members who support Proenza said they believed the rebellious forecasters were overreacting to recent events and were upset by Proenza's management style and operational changes he has requested, including alterations to some forecast maps.
"I bring new ideas," Proenza said. "I come in from outside and look at things with a fresher view."
The forecasters rejected that explanation.
"I don't consider any of this to be an issue of style," Knabb said. "I consider this to be an issue of substance."
He, his colleagues and Mayfield said Proenza has exaggerated the magnitude of the satellite issue, unintentionally leaving the public - and Congress - with the impression that forecasters are not capable of doing their jobs.
That controversy involves a satellite called QuikScat, which measures wind speeds over the distant ocean and is operating beyond its designed life span without a replacement under construction.
No one doubts its importance when it comes to storms far out to sea, but the senior forecasters said its loss would not compromise the accuracy of forecasts of storms that are approaching land - the most important forecasts they issue.
Hurricane hunter planes provide much more crucial data about those threats.
"If I'm the director of the hurricane center, I would not spend my time fighting for QuikScat," Avila said. "I would be fighting to make sure that the reconnaissance planes are always there."
In response to Proenza's comments, some members of Congress have suggested transferring funds from hurricane hunter missions to development of a QuikScat replacement. That could lead to disaster, the forecasters said.
"There's not a forecaster here who believes that QuikScat is more important than reconnaissance flights," Franklin said.
Some forecasters also believe that Proenza - who has never served as a frontline hurricane forecaster - is more regal in his approach than his predecessors, and they worry about the consequences if and when a major storm threatens land.
"From my point of view, by the way I've seen previous directors work, I don't see the concept of a team player," said Pasch, who has been at the hurricane center since 1989.
He and other the forecasters said they were reluctantly lining up against their boss, but believed they had no other choice.
"There is a certain amount of risk associated with this, but we feel we have to do it," Pasch said. "We think it's in the best interests of the nation, the best interests of the hurricane warning system."