Today, the NOAA issued its first hurricane watch of the season, from Baffin Bay to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Mexican authorities have a hurricane watch of their own, extended from the Rio Grande mouth all the way to La Cruz, Mexico.
Tropical Storm Alex, expected to be Hurricane Alex by Tuesday is the culprit, and most projections have Alex becoming a Class Three hurricane and making landfall by Thursday morning. Now then, if you live in the area, you should be nailing boards over your windows and making plans to go somewhere else. And everyone on the Gulf Coast should read my articles covering hurricanes if the haven't already. More tropical storms and hurricanes are on the way, and if the experts are right, this should be a busier hurricane season that usual. There's a lot of talk in the national media about tropical storm Alex affecting the oil cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico. I've also received a few letters from people asking me about it. I'll get to that later, but I'll state right now, there's a much bigger problem...
No Flood Insurance
The country's National Flood Insurance Program has lapsed four weeks ago. Without authorization from the Senate, everyone in the Gulf states have every reason to be chewing on their nails. People who have bought homes since May 31 near the coast can't close until they can buy flood insurance (a requirement from every mortgage company), and people who had it already can't renew.
The Insurance Council of Texas claims that some 680,000 homes are without flood insurance, just a few days from a likely hurricane landfall. This doesn't account all the people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that will almost surely see some tropical storms or hurricanes in the coming months.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed their new legislation to renew the insurance, retroactively until the end of September to at least cover everyone during hurricane season, but the effort has so far stalled in the Senate. With the hurricane expected to hit or at land near south Texas, this has a lot of people pretty scared.
Texas senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchinson are taking this seriously and have urged their colleagues in the Senate to rush the legislation through in order to protect their constituents.
I have to agree with what she said in a recent statement: "Allowing the National Flood Insurance to lapse is unacceptable at any time, but failure to extend it as we face an active hurricane season is unthinkable. I urge my colleagues to move quickly to help protect American homeowners from the devastation of floods."
It's true that the Senate will renew the insurance program retroactively, but that's little comfort to homeowners. With the oil spill AND a more active than usual hurricane season to deal with, the people in the Gulf region deserve better from the Senate, in my opinion than to have to add this insurance debacle into the mix.
Oil Spills and Hurricanes
There's a lot of data concerning hurricanes and oil spills; they tend to happen in almost any hurricane. Many of you have written to me, and I apologize for not repsonding to all of you. I'll list the most common questions I'm asked and hopefully I'll adress everyone's concerns.
Is it true that oil can stop a hurricane?
The short answer is no. It is true that in calm waters, an oil slick in theory can suppress the evaporation of seawater by not allowing it to have contact with the air, and this could prevent a tropical depression from forming. Tropical depressions (which turn into tropical storms, which turn into hurricanes) generally don't form in the Gulf. They form in the Atlantic and run into the Gulf, strengthen and land somewhere. Another matter is that other than at the well source, the oil slick is patchy. It isn't big enough in any one place to make a difference. In any case, a hurricane won't in any way be affected by the oil spill.
What will a hurricane do to the oil slick?
Tropical Storm Alex, if it strengthens in the next few days as everyone expects, will probably present a serious problem for the safety of the workers in the area. Even though the storm is very far from the well and the slick, the Gulf is already getting pretty choppy and can get downright dangerous. It's safe to say that it could delay the operations underway for at least a week.
Future tropical storms and hurricanes could pass much closer. If one goes west of the slick, the counter-clockwise movements would likely move the oil closer to land. East of the slick, the movement would probably move the slick further out to sea. Still, hurricanes are complex so it really depends on specifics of the hurricane itself, but that's the general outlook. Modeling where the oil will go would look very different from one hurricane to the next.
Storm surges are the biggest problem. They will likely push the oil inland, as Hurricanes Rita and Katrina did, which won't be a good thing. There would be an awful lot of toxic debris to clean up for whatever community is unlucky enough to get hit, but they'd be jumping on the proverbial grenade, if you'll forgive the metaphor.
The good news is, a hurricane will "weather" the oil and speed up the process of biodegradation. It will also disperse it over a much wider area, and the parts per million would become so small that the oil slick would have have a negligible affect on the water. Hurricanes span 200 to 300 miles in most instances an if even the current spill were dispersed over an area this large, life would get a whole lot better for the fish and for much of the Gulf's ecosystem, other than the area near the well and the place that gets hit, of course.
Will the hurricane pull all the oil under the surface up to the top?
No, but it will disperse it over a wider area, as I explained before. The subsurface oil is heavily dispersed to begin with, other than the area right at the well and a hurricane would disperse it even more.
Will the hurricane rain oil?
No. Hurricanes cover an area much larger than the slick (which is patchy to begin with) and draw their water vapor from a such a huge area that that the oil wouldn't be much of it.
Why haven't you covered the oil spill?
Our job is primarily to talk about preparedness. We did however report on the accident when it happened (largely before most of the media found it newsworthy) and we did report the spill. We can't however compete with the kind of timely coverage that newspapers and broadcast news can give people. It would be tough for us to cover every story that breaks about the spill. I wouldn't want people to depend on us to cover the movement of hurricanes or news about emergencies in their communities either. Weather radios and local media are the best source of this kind of news.
It would be important for us to write about the oil spill once this is all resolved. To be honest, I thought I was going to write that weeks ago, if only because BP promised that the situation was being resolved.
There were a lot of other questions regarding BP, the White House, the future of off shore drilling and other things.
We try to avoid politics here, but I'll just say that FEMA, the Coast Guard, and other federal and state responders have done what they could. I also think the executives involved (the president and all the respective governors) have done their jobs in managing the crisis.
I would point at the cozy relationship that oil regulators have with the industry, which I think has led to a culture that can allow these things to happen, and I'm sure we will see a lot of people sacked in the near future.
BP and the other companies involved in the drilling were ultimately responsible and it appears they haven't been totally honest with the US government or the public. President Obama has repeatedly said since the beginning that BP will cover all the costs for cleanup, and there are tons of lawsuits looming over courthouses all long the Gulf Coast. I suspect whatever justice people are seeking will come in the end.
In closing, I'd like to remind everyone that 15 people have so far died because of this. Eleven didn't make it to lifeboats when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and four more died in the efforts to plug the well. My concern is first for the families of these people before anything else, and for the safety of the people at sea (no matter who is paying them) doing a dangerous job.