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In Gulf states, oil spill darkens fears this hurricane season

By Rich Phillips, CNN
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When oil and hurricanes collide
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gulf Coast oil spill brings new dimension of fear in hurricane season
  • Nightmare scenario: Strong storm surge brings oily mess miles inland
  • Retired general's fear: 'A black wave that will be remembered for several generations"
  • Evacuating oil spill volunteers would add logistical twist if storm bears down

Belle Chasse, Louisiana (CNN) -- June 1. Hurricane season.

When you live in a coastal community, this is the time that the knot in your stomach begins. It's the anxiety that comes with pulling out your home insurance policy and placing it inside your supply box with flashlights, batteries and maybe a can of tuna.

In Louisiana and the other Gulf Coast states, residents fear this year's storms will be darker with oil.

"We don't want to scare anybody, but we need to be realistic about it," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Nungesser addressed a gathering of local and state officials at their annual hurricane workshop, urging people to be ready for what forecasters say will be a very active season.

"The worse-case scenario is a Katrina-type storm," Nungesser said.

He fears a strong hurricane coming in from the oil-soaked Gulf would "blanket all of south Louisiana, not only killing the marsh, but contaminating where we sit right now, the football field, the high school, so it wouldn't just be a cleanup from water. ... I don't know if we'd ever clean it up," he said.

With the oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and threatening shorelines, no one wanted to sugarcoat the potential scenario.

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"So keep in mind, as you're around your home, the thought that if you evacuate, you may be coming back not to a flooded home, but to a home that is completely contaminated with this oil," said Nungesser.

"I don't know how to soft-pedal that," he told the audience.

And neither do meteorologists. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates 14 to 23 named storms, eight to 14 of which would be hurricanes. Three to seven of those storms could become major hurricanes, at categories 3, 4 or 5.

"Any tropical system can create a black wave that will be remembered for several generations," said retired Army Gen. Russel Honore, who commanded the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"[New Orleans] had a 17-foot surge. Biloxi had a 30-foot surge. Imagine a 30-foot black wave coming out of the Gulf," he told CNN.

It's the storm surge, scientists say, that would bring the Gulf oil inland. But scientists say the oil would not leave as the storm surge recedes back into the Gulf. The contaminated residue would remain. It paints a picture of the cleanup as complex at best, with public health and insurance issues making a Gulf storm that much more dangerous.

And there's an additional logistical concern generated by the spill.

"We have to be prepared to bring the thousands of people that have come here to help fight that oil and get them to [a] safe haven before we pull the trigger to evacuate our residents. That is going to be a sizable challenge," he said.

As an extra measure, state and local officials want BP to pay $350 million for six berms to be built on the shoreline to help stop the oil from being brought inland by a storm.

"It will slow it down... it still would give us a frontline of defense. Right now, we're doing nothing and we have nothing, and that's just not acceptable," said Nungesser.

But Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center, says it may be a waste of time.

"Anything that man has put in the way temporarily to stop [the] motion of water, once you get a powerful storm surge, those things disappear," said Read.

For an area that will more than likely be affected by at least one storm this season, one escape is dark humor. Said Honore:

"There's a new way to curse you out down here. BP you."

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