MIAMI - With Category 5 gales of dissent raging through the National Hurricane Center and its embattled director questioning scientific and budgetary resources, many South Floridians and residents of other vulnerable areas pondered three key questions Friday:
If a hurricane threatened today, how well could forecasters perform their duties in an environment of increasing mutiny and turmoil? Do they have a full array of instruments? And is the public being protected?
The answers are mostly - but not entirely - reassuring.
"We'll do our best," said senior forecaster James Franklin, a leader of the staff insurrection that seeks the ouster of director Bill Proenza. "But you can't do as well when you have all these issues swirling around."
One leading indicator of the toxic climate at the hurricane center:
Senior forecaster Rick Knabb told Proenza by email that Proenza had publicly misrepresented remarks made by Knabb during a private conversation this week and "I will no longer meet or talk with you in private."
"I've never seen anything like this," said Miles Lawrence, who retired as a senior forecaster in 2005 after 39 years at the center.
Hundreds of people contributed posts to miamiherald.com about the controversy. "We in Florida need this center to operate and not become bogged down by this infighting," wrote one poster.
Still, Lawrence and others said the public should not be overly alarmed.
Despite the impression that might have been left by some of Proenza's comments, they said, the hurricane center has the same tools it had in prior seasons and forecasters have sufficient mental clarity to get the job done.
"They're professionals at the hurricane center, they do their jobs," said Hugh Willoughby, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division on Virginia Key.
"In terms of the people who are there and the technology, I think they can function. But, not being there, I can't really speak to the stress that's being caused by the circus that's going on and the storm of discontent."
On Friday, Proenza defied a staff mutiny, saying he would not resign, though he serves at the pleasure of his superiors in Washington and said he would consult with them about "the way forward" - the first time he has cracked open the door to a potential departure.
"The staff here doesn't dictate who the leader is," Proenza told The Miami Herald Friday, one day after nearly half his employees signed a petition demanding his resignation. "What a dangerous precedent when we allow subordinates to dictate their leadership by signing a petition.
"In all sincerity, I need to discuss the way forward with Washington, D.C.," Proenza said. "I work for the American people and I'm always prepared to provide for their greater good."
Those superiors in Washington also have been applying pressure, last month reprimanding Proenza by letter and this week conducting a snap inspection of his operation - a process that will resume next week.
Franklin responded by saying Proenza had "poisoned the atmosphere" and must leave immediately.
As Franklin spoke, the special inspection team was reporting its initial findings to Conrad C. Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Franklin said he and his allies hope that a way will be found to oust Proenza by the end of the weekend.
"My gosh, if they haven't heard enough in Washington, what more do they need to hear?" Franklin said.
Proenza has raised concerns about the eventual demise of a weather satellite and a shortage of funds for research.
He has been careful to say that current capabilities have not been diminished, but many of his scientists say the drumbeat of his complaints has undermined faith in their forecasts.
In addition, vague and non-specific suggestions have been made that Proenza is difficult to work with and, at times, has been verbally abusive to members of his staff.
Hurricane forecasting tends to be a collegial affair, with many opinions solicited and debated before predictions are made and warnings are posted.
Senior forecaster Richard Pasch and others have said that Proenza does not seem to embrace the team approach, an assertion Proenza and his supporters deny.
In any event, elected officials, emergency managers and the public have come to rely on the hurricane center's forecasts and credibility, especially during a decades-long period of enhanced activity that already has produced hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Katrina, Wilma and others.
Several members of Congress visited the center Friday, and some emergency managers and many members of the public expressed concern about the chaos that envelopes the place.
"I really don't want the folks at the National Hurricane Center to be distracted by anything that will divert their attention from their mission to provide me with the hurricane information I need," said Larry Gispert, Hillborough County's emergency manager and a vice president of the 3,600-member International Association of Emergency Managers.
He said that information "is critical to ensure that people and businesses in my county can make informed decisions impacting hundreds of thousands of people and millions of dollars of business revenue."
Still, Lawrence, Willoughby and other experts outside and inside the center said the concerns seem overblown.
Franklin said he and his colleagues were up to the task, though he conceded that the soap opera was distracting.
"We're professionals and we'll get through it and we'll get the job done to the best of our abilities," Franklin said.
"Having said that, what you don't want in the long run, as you get into August and September and things really get busy, is a bunch of anxious forecasters who aren't getting any sleep and who are on edge, because then maybe you don't perform as well," he said.
Willoughby, who now teaches at Florida International University and maintains close links with hurricane forecasters, expressed confidence that they could overcome the distractions.
"You could decapitate the hurricane center by wiping out its senior management, and the people who are left would organize themselves, there would always be somebody on the desk and they would forecast hurricanes," he said.
But could they think clearly and produce accurate forecasts under these extreme conditions?
"Honestly, I think so," Willoughby said. "There are procedures and the reason why you have a lot of training is so, when the world turns to excrement, you know what to do."