Tension Among Officials Grows as Storm Nears


BELLE CHASSE, La. — Tropical Depression Bonnie, which is heading swiftly into the Gulf of Mexico and churning toward southeast Louisiana, is not expected to be a particularly strong storm.

But it has already whipped up tension and mistrust that had been simmering between local officials on one side and the BP and Coast Guard officials in command of the oil spill response on the other.

Federal and BP officials have hammered out a storm plan with local governments that includes evacuating people and moving response equipment out of coastal parishes to higher ground.

The Coast Guard said it was concerned about safeguarding the equipment to avoid any damage from the storm.

But local officials saw the move as a sign that it was going to withdraw equipment permanently, and they have fought bitterly to keep it. One parish president, Kevin Davis of St. Tammany, ordered the arrest of anyone who moved oil-protection barges out of his parish waters.

Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, where the storm is due to hit first, threatened to blow out the tires of trucks carting away protective boom. Mr. Nungesser claimed he was joking, but he still drew a call of reprimand from the F.B.I.

By late Thursday, compromises had been ironed out, and the equipment remained in the parishes. But the episode presaged a bigger test: what happens if an actual hurricane comes barreling through?

“You’ve got a real issue of trusting anybody’s word,” said Mr. Davis, who spent seven hours on Thursday in heated meetings with members of the response command. Under normal circumstances, hurricane evacuations are enormously complicated operations.

The huge oil response effort has only multiplied the complexity, involving nearly 42,000 more people across five states, some not from the region; roughly 4,000 more boats; untold numbers of vehicles; and an oil-water mix that could be blown farther inland. To regional emergency directors versed in storm planning, the response has added another layer of command — and potential problems.

“At the end of the day, it’s my job and the parish president’s job to look out for what’s best for residents of St. Charles Parish,” said Scott Whelchel, the director of emergency preparedness for a parish that lies on the southwestern banks of Lake Pontchartrain. “The simple fact is, I wasn’t elected to take care of BP’s equipment.”

The unified area command plan calls for BP and the Coast Guard to evacuate people and equipment from the well site as many as 120 hours before a hurricane, and from the ground about 70 hours before the storm.

Already, a drill rig that was working on a relief well, which is considered the ultimate way to seal the well, has begun to disconnect to leave the area.

Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who leads the federal response effort, said on Friday that a seismic monitoring ship and the ships operating undersea robots near the well would remain as long as possible.

But if they are forced to evacuate, aerial and satellite reconnaissance would be used to keep track of the shut-in well.

So far, for this storm, the evacuations of coastal residents have been minimal.

On Thursday, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, and several coastal parishes followed. Plaquemines Parish called for a voluntary evacuation of its residents near the coast on Friday, even as the Coast Guard and BP started moving personnel and equipment to higher ground from a site in Venice.

Rear Adm. Paul F. Zukunft of the Coast Guard, who is the federal on-scene coordinator, said he understood the frustration in the parishes.

“My objective is to save their way of life, protect it and recover as much of the oil as possible,” Admiral Zukunft said. “I am listening to their concerns.”

But emergency officials remain skeptical of the plans and the questions they raise about the logistics of the evacuation.

“I’m not saying we can’t do it,” Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the New Orleans director of homeland security and emergency management, said in an interview this week. “It’s just a huge added burden.”

This type of two-pronged evacuation is further complicated by the presence of the oil itself.

Colonel Sneed said he was frustrated that his repeated requests for training in hazardous materials for first responders, who could encounter oil in flooded city streets, had been turned down.

A BP spokesman, John Curry, cautioning that the decision came from the joint command, said Colonel Sneed’s request was denied because “it was not related to the spill.” Mr. Curry added that BP had given $75 million to each state to use as necessary for such training.

Most of the anger from parish officials seems to be directed at BP, especially this week. Mr. Nungesser said that a meeting scheduled Wednesday between BP and local officials to discuss concerns was canceled by BP with only a half-hour’s notice.

“What I read between the lines was that we’re finished here,” said Mr. Davis of St. Tammany.

A BP spokesman said that Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer, wanted to attend but received the invitation too late to change his schedule.

Coast Guard officials denied that the storm plans had anything to do with reducing response personnel. “Absolutely not,” Admiral Zukunft said. “We’ll be back Monday with a full-court press.”

At a news conference outside the Plaquemines Parish Office of Emergency Management, Mr. Jindal said that he had received assurances from the Coast Guard that the equipment would be back. “Some parish presidents are happier than they were yesterday, but they’re still not thrilled,” he said.

State and federal officials have been involved in streamlining the plan, now in its fourth version.

Mike Womack, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director, had to point out a significant problem in an earlier draft of the plan, which originally had BP and Coast Guard evacuating its vehicles to a staging area in Hattiesburg that was at the intersection of the state’s main evacuation routes.

Mr. Womack said he was particularly concerned about the many independent contractors working from BP who were not familiar with hurricanes.

For all the headaches the approaching storm has caused so far, it has at least provided officials an opportunity to prepare for possible bigger storms.

For months, Michelle Tassin, the homeland security and emergency preparedness director for Plaquemines, said she told officials in the joint command that there would be smaller storms requiring smaller-scale evacuation of equipment and personnel.

On Thursday, Ms. Tassin finally received approval to have some equipment relocated to a staging area at the northern end of the parish rather than a place miles to the north. As frustrated as she was at the last-minute timing, she was glad the changes were in place for later.

“On the best days,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, who dealt with several hurricanes as lieutenant governor, “these are very complicated operations to implement. Yesterday, as difficult as it was, gave us the opportunity to think through these things.”

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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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