MIAMI - Nearly half of the staff of the National Hurricane Center joined the rebellion against director Bill Proenza late Thursday, issuing a statement calling for his immediate dismissal - another blow to his struggle to keep his job.
"The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake," said the statement, signed by seven hurricane forecasters and 16 other employees, including many staff scientists and Proenza's secretary.
"The undersigned staff of the National Hurricane Center has concluded that the center needs a new director," the manifesto said, "and with the heart of the hurricane season fast approaching, urges the Department of Commerce to make this happen as quickly as possible."
The dramatic escalation of the battle - and of the turmoil - at the hurricane center came two days after three senior forecasters told The Miami Herald that he should leave and another senior forecaster criticized Proenza.
They said his public statements about an aging satellite have undermined confidence in their forecasts. Others believe that his frequent clashes with superiors in Washington have become a serious distraction as the hurricane season deepens.
Earlier this week, federal officials dispatched a special "assessment team" to the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade County, ordering it to conduct an unprecedented review of the facility's leadership and operations.
A spokesman for the National Weather Service said Thursday that the team - which includes an attorney who specializes in personnel matters - will return next week to conduct additional interviews.
Proenza, 62, still is supported by some staffers and by a number of scientific colleagues, including the director of a key NOAA research facility in South Florida.
Proenza did not return calls seeking comment Thursday, but he said earlier this week that he had no intention of stepping down from the prominent post, which he has held for only six months.
An employee who spoke with Proenza early Thursday said he sensed no change in that determination.
But the weight of the statement issued Thursday evening - and the significance attached to the large and diverse number of people who signed it - cast deepening doubt on his ability to retain the post.
Virtually the entire senior staff endorsed the manifesto, including:
Senior hurricane forecasters Lixion Avila, James Franklin, Rick Knabb and Richard Pasch; hurricane forecasters Eric Blake, Dan Brown and Michelle Mainelli; meteorologists Wally Barnes, Robert Berg, John Cangialosi, Hugh Cobb, Martin Nelson, Gladys Rubio, Chris Sisko and Patricia Wallace; oceanographer Stephen Baig; executive officer Ahsha Tribble; administrative officer Vivian Jorge, and Proenza's administrative assistant, Evangelina Maruly.
"This group believes that we need new leadership here and it believes we need it quickly," Franklin told The Miami Herald.
He said that the 23 signatures represents about half of the total staff - and 70 percent of those who had an opportunity to see the statement.
In another development, a prominent private forecaster joined the call for Proenza's resignation or ouster.
Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for the Weather Underground, which provides forecasts for The Associated Press, Google and hundreds of other clients, questioned the scientific basis of Proenza's campaign to replace the aging QuikScat satellite.
"There's never been anything like this," Masters said. "He should resign this month."
Masters, whose online site serves web pages that receive 10 million visits a day, including The Miami Herald's forecast-related web pages, criticized the basis for Proenza's assertion that the loss of QuikScat would diminish the accuracy of two-day forecasts by 10 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent.
The satellite, launched in 1999, is operating beyond its designed life span. A replacement has not yet been designed, though preliminary plans are under way.
Many forecasters and researchers say a replacement should feature upgraded capabilities, even at the risk of delaying deployment, and that Proenza's public campaign could work against that.
At any rate, Masters said, Proenza's estimates of forecast deterioration are based on a study that examines a small number of forecasts, is contradicted by other studies and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, an unusual circumstance.
"To be in the most visible and responsible scientific position in our profession of meteorology, everything you do has to come from the science," Masters said. "You have to fairly present it. If you don't have the integrity to do that, you shouldn't be in the job."
But a leading QuikScat expert rose to Proenza's defense.
Bob Atlas, who runs NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory on Virginia Key, Fla., was a key member of the team that developed and initially worked with QuikScat.
He said the report challenged by Masters, even if not yet published, appears to be a "rigorous study" that provides the "most comprehensive study of QuikScat data related to hurricane predictions."
Atlas said nothing he has heard Proenza say about QuikScat has made him wince, though Atlas added that NOAA is developing ways to mitigate the loss of QuikScat data.
In addition, he said, Proenza's estimates of 16 percent and 10 percent have been misunderstood: They apply to the accuracy of one of many computerized forecast models rather than actual, end-result predictions by hurricane forecasters.
"Bill's worked very hard and very well to position the hurricane center to interact well with researchers," Atlas said.
But also on Virginia Key, Otis Brown, the dean of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which works closely with hurricane forecasters, said he was disturbed by the current climate at the center.
"When you have this much apparent turmoil and you don't have everyone at least superficially pulling in the same direction, that cannot be in the best interests of an organization," Brown said.