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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

On Friday, the Coast Guard announced it would start moving boats and rigs away from the Deepwater Horizon geyser site 120 hours before a hurricane’s approach, at that point ending all collection efforts and delaying the drilling of relief wells, which are now on track to plug the well by late August – the height of the hurricane season. The geyser blowing at full tilt without a containment cap could spew between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day, possibly more.

Moreover, scientists have predicted one of the busiest Gulf hurricane seasons in years, expecting between 14 and 23 named storms and 14 hurricanes this summer – compared to a long-term average of 11 named storms per season.

Tropical Storm Alex formed in the western Caribbean on Saturday, and forecasters said it was unclear if it would hit the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Associated Press reported. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said early Saturday that the storm has maximum sustained winds of about 40 mph.

Most storm models show Alex traveling over the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico over the weekend, hurricane forecaster Jack Bevens said. Bevens noted it’s too soon to say with certainty if the storm will pass over the oiled Gulf, though for now it’s not expected to hit the spill.

If it does, says Greve, “That’d be a real mess.”

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

Related:

Active hurricane season ahead: too soon to tell oil spill's impact

Jones Act: Maritime politics strain Gulf oil spill cleanup

Gulf oil spill: Will a hurricane throw off efforts at the well?

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