Hurricane could ratchet up the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster

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Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix. But throw in forecasts of a worse-than-average hurricane season, an unstanched oil spill belching millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico and no precedent for or experience with storm-force winds whipping up oil-fouled waters, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Well before the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, experts were predicting that the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season could be a doozy, with as many as 18 named storms, of which eight could become hurricanes.

Of those eight, the experts advised, four could develop into major hurricanes — category 3, 4 or 5 — with maximum wind speeds of 111 mph or greater.

Caribbean countries can expect an above-average season, with a 58% chance of a major hurricane slamming the region, according to the Colorado State University forecasting team.

The forecast for the vulnerable Gulf Coast is just as bad, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The Colorado State team predicted a 69% chance that a major hurricane would hit the U.S. this season, a 45% chance of a big storm pummeling Florida and a 44% risk for the Gulf coast region.

The problem is that experts have no experience with what happens when a hurricane meets an oil spill.

"It will only take one storm in the Gulf to further complicate efforts to cap the spill and limit the environmental impact," said Robert Twilley, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University and one of several scientists attached to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s a one-two punch, an oil spill-hurricane scenario that almost certainly will play out in real time sometime this summer or fall.

There’s also the added threat of hazardous materials. If a hurricane storm surge moves the oily waters inland, "the normal debris that must be removed could be considered as a hazmat contamination that would take months or years to remove," said Bob Pearce, executive director of the Central Panhandle chapter of the American Red Cross in Panama City, Fla.

The Caribbean, already on edge with the forecasts for a hyperactive hurricane season, now has a new menace to contend with.

Oil is up for discussion by foreign ministers attending a Caribbean Community executive session in Guyana later this month.

"All efforts to stem the flow of oil have failed, and there are concerns in the Caribbean that the oil slick will reach its shores eventually, given the flow of currents," a Caricom statement warned.

Although there are disaster plans in place to cope with hurricanes, no such plan exists for oil.

John Lynch, Jamaica’s director of tourism, said, "We’re concerned. We view this as a multiagency effort, although we do need additional materials and resources to address this. We see international cooperation as essential to any national efforts."

AccuWeather.com meteorologists cautioned that tar balls could get caught in the Gulf Stream current and move swiftly up the U.S. East Coast.

Another model places them on Cuba’s resort beaches near Varadero on the north coast or washing up on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

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