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Gulf oil spill: Could 'toxic storm' make beach towns uninhabitable?

Residents fear mass relocations should a hurricane kick the Gulf oil spill onto resort towns. ‘Hazmat cards’ are a hot commodity among residents, since they could be the key to return.

By Staff writer / June 26, 2010

Mark Woodward of Daphne, Ala., looks for tar balls as he walks along the beach at dawn in Destin, Fla., Saturday, June 26. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has started coming ashore in Destin and other beaches on the Florida and Alabama coasts.

Dave Martin/AP

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Orange Beach, Ala.

Ron Greve expects the worst is yet to come in the oil spill drama that is haranguing beach towns all along the US Gulf Coast. So, like a growing number of residents, the Pensacola Beach solar-cell salesman took a hazardous materials class and received a “hazmat card” upon graduation.

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Those cards, says Mr. Greve, could become critical in coming weeks and months. In the case of a hurricane hitting the 250-mile wide slick and pushing it over sand dunes and into beach towns, residents fear they’ll face not only mass evacuations, but potential permanent relocation.

Storm-wizened locals know that it can take days, even weeks, for roads to open and authorities to allow residents to return to inspect the damage and start to rebuild after a hurricane moves through.

IN PICTURES: Response to the oil spill on the Gulf Coast

In the case of a “toxic storm,” only residents with hazmat cards would be allowed to cross bridges to return home, Greve says, since toxicity risks would be too high for untrained residents.

“You’d have to have these cards to be able to return,” says Mr. Greve. “In these classes, they basically tell you that swallowing even a small amount of the oil or getting some on your hands and then having a smoke could be deadly.”

Fears about ecological damage have dominated concerns around the spill, which began when the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP, exploded on April 20, killing 11 people. The rig sank two days later and oil began rushing into the open Gulf.

But if a Gulf hurricane whips the toxic rusty mousse hovering offshore onto land, the impact on human communities and health could become a focal point. At the very least, return for residents could take much longer, potentially forcing dissolution, residents fear, of entire island, bay and river communities along the densely populated Gulf Coast.

That scenario is part of what’s driving frustration among many local officials on the Gulf, who want a more concerted and ramped-up skimming effort by the BP-Coast Guard Unified Command in New Orleans.

A super-tanker skimmer known as the A Whale, capable of collecting 500,000 barrels of oily water a day, is en route to the Gulf, but its owners have not been assured that it can join the surface clean-up effort. Some members of Congress have criticized the administration for not moving faster to ask for international skimming fleets to help corral more of the slick.

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