Spill Is A Disaster That May Change Everything

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Gulf communities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are bracing for an economic and environmental catastrophe from a huge oil spill threatening to come ashore. The spill followed an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico 11 days ago. No one is certain how much crude is pouring out of the damaged well, nor are they sure how to plug the leak. Without a way to stop it, many residents and watermen fear this is a man-made disaster from which they'll never recover.


President Obama heads to the Gulf Coast today to assess the response to a massive oil spill spreading from the location where an offshore rig exploded and sank 12 days ago. Efforts to contain the spill were largely stalled over the last two days that prevented boats from deploying booms. Meanwhile, communities along the Gulf Coast are bracing for an environmental and economic catastrophe they fear will be worse than Hurricane Katrina.

From New Orleans, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: It's been 12 days now since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf, 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, killing 11. And Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, now designated by the White House to head the federal response, says it's still not clear how big the spill is.

Commandant THAD ALLEN (Coast Guard): The exact estimation of what's flowing out of those pipes down there is probably impossible at this time due to the water and our ability to try and assess that from remotely operated vehicles and video.

ALLEN: Allen and others say the problem is they haven't ever seen a spill quite like this before - an uncontrolled release of oil thousands of feet down on the bottom of the Gulf. What was first thought to be a relatively small leak of a thousand barrels a day was upgraded by the Coast Guard last week to 5,000 barrels a day. But now, many experts question even that figure, saying the size of the growing slick suggests that much more oil is being released than earlier estimates.

Mr. LOUIS MILLER (Mississippi Sierra Club): This is going to destroy the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast as we know it.

ALLEN: Louis Miller of the Mississippi Sierra Club believes the federal government waited too long before taking control of the response to the spill. He spoke at a news conference yesterday in Gulfport, a community where the economy is based on fishing and tourism.

Mr. MILLER: We now understand there's a third leak in the riser pipe and the concern is whether that riser pipe is going to hold. If in the event that that riser pipe blows out, we're going from 5,000 barrels a day to somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 thousand barrels a day.

ALLEN: Miller was referring to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained this week by the Mobile, Alabama Press Register. The NOAA memo talks about the possibility that the bent pipe leading from the well head, the riser, may fail. A blowout that would increase the amount of oil being released by tenfold or more.

Along the docks in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi there's anxiety now and despair. At Gulfport Harbor, Louis Scermetta(ph) runs an excursion boat company started by his grandfather in the 1920s.

Mr. LOUIS SCERMETTA: This is the Pan-American Clipper. It's a classic Biloxi Lugger, built out of cypress, Louisiana red cypress. My grandfather used it in the wintertime to fish and oyster, and in the summertime he took tourists out to the Barrier Islands and made a good living with it.

ALLEN: Scermetta says this boat has taken a million passengers out to islands that are part of the protected Gulf Coast National Seashore. Those islands, the bird rookeries and nearby shrimping and oyster grounds are all now in the direct path of the growing spill.

Mr. SCERMETTA: This could not have come at a worse time for the Mississippi tourism industry. For all intents and purposes, our business is over, possibly bankrupt. At this point, I'm not sure. We hope not.

ALLEN: An oil sheen has already begun washing up at the tip of the Louisiana boot, Plaquemines Parish, and the Coast Guard says it looks inevitable that larger quantities of oil will hit land soon. Fishermen, charter boat captains and others who make their living from the Gulf say the approaching spill is like a slow-motion hurricane. The difference, they say, is that this is a manmade disaster and one from which many may never recover.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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