Hurricane could suspend oil capping for two weeks


(CNN) — Oil could flow unrestricted for two weeks into the Gulf of Mexico if a hurricane moved toward the BP oil spill, according to a timeline from Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who’s managing the federal government’s response to the disaster.

Allen said a plan has been hashed out to deal with this year’s hurricane season, which ends November 30. Predicted to be one of the most turbulent on record, the season could bring 14 to 23 named storms, of which eight to 14 could become hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

Two weeks is the total number of days BP and the Coast Guard would need from start to finish to dismantle equipment, evacuate workers and return to the site to reestablish operations, Allen said.

Within those two weeks, BP and other officials would take five days to shut down and evacuate.

That number comes from the National Hurricane Center’s routine five-day track, which monitors tropical storm winds, center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. He specializes in storms in the Caribbean and the Gulf.

“This is as much advance notice as we’re able to give,” he said. “But anyone who has dealt with hurricanes knows that you don’t always get five days of warning.

“A hurricane can hit in hours without a lot of warning.”

The first named storm of the season, Hurricane Alex, drenched Mexico on Wednesday. Forecasters had said for days that it would strike the Texas-Mexico border. Alex was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday after making landfall in Mexico.

The storm was far from the spill, yet its high winds caused waves too large some parts of the Gulf for oil skimming to continue.

Mississippi skimmers have been shut down since Tuesday. “Once the seas get above 4 feet, skimming is impossible,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Charles Diorio, who is based in Mobile, Alabama. “I’m not optimistic I can get anybody out there soon.”

BP is planning to capture 25,000 barrels of oil a day through a riser. That riser could be disconnected within 114 hours if a hurricane hit, and booming and dispersant spraying would end, according to an online statement by BP executive Kent Wells on the company’s website.

U.S. government officials said they now estimate the ruptured BP well in the Gulf of Mexico is spewing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons) per day; much higher than the first estimate of 1,000 barrels per day in late April.

In addition to dealing with the oil, officials must keep equal attention on the safety of people in the Gulf, a population that has grown with spill workers and other personnel.

A significant part of any hurricane plan is coordinated evacuation. Just this week, planners with the Louisiana governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness finalized a plan that designated when BP’s thousands of workers can start leaving the state and when residents can hit the road out of town.

“Our concern from the beginning: Traffic jams. We can’t have BP blocking our roadways with equipment and personnel,” office director Mark Cooper said. “I was alarmed a few weeks ago when I was hearing from BP ‘We’ll just evacuate.’

“Well, no, it’s not that simple.”

The plan, according to Cooper, outlines hour-by-hour who can evacuate and to where beginning 120 hours before a hurricane is predicted to hit. It calls for BP to begin leaving Louisiana at least 16 hours before officials begin evacuating residents.

It also designates 700 buses that are to be used only by disabled residents, Cooper said.

The plan also calls for BP to be back on the scene, fighting the spill within 72 hours after a hurricane, he said, and for BP to embed workers in emergency central commands in various parishes to help with communication with local and state officials.

“We can handle our part, and we think BP can handle theirs,” Cooper said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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