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Gulf Evacuations Delay Cleanup Operations

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St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro i

St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro is on a boat to check the conditions of the boats stored behind a lock on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Carrie Kahn/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Carrie Kahn/NPR
St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro

St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro is on a boat to check the conditions of the boats stored behind a lock on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Oil recovery and cleanup is once again under way in the Gulf of Mexico after ships had been taken out of the area over the weekend in anticipation of a tropical storm, which dissipated long before hitting the site of the BP oil spill.

Officials say the evacuation has set back efforts to permanently shut the blown-out well by at least a week and kept oil cleanup workers out of the Gulf.

St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro heads up the Mississippi River channel in a small boat to check on a crucial lock that needs to be open so boats can come back downstream to the Gulf. The parish moved valuable oil skimmers and other vessels there for safety as Tropical Storm Bonnie was heading last week toward the Louisiana coastline.

The boat idles at the foot of the lock's giant black steel doors. Taffaro shouts up to a watchman to explain what he's doing.

"We are just trying to get some of those boats that we brought in for safe harbor out," he says.

Taffaro says he wants the doors open as soon as possible. That way the boats can get back to work, cleaning up the oil that has soiled hundreds of acres of wetlands throughout his parish.

"We don't want to lose any time that we don't have to," he says. "Any day lost is a day too many."

Taffaro and other crews around Louisiana lost at least three days of cleanup time due to the threat of bad weather. In the end, Bonnie never packed much of a punch and fell apart miles before reaching the oil spill site and the shore.

But Bonnie did cause plenty of waves between local Louisiana officials and those in charge of the cleanup effort. BP and Coast Guard officials had planned to load boats onto trailers and truck the critical equipment 70 miles away for safety.

But infuriated officials like Taffaro balked. He says many in the area worried that BP wasn't ever going to bring back the boats. After several heated exchanges, the evacuation plan was modified and Taffaro was able to keep the boats closer. But he says he still doesn't trust the oil company.

"Let's just say that we are acting on a trust-by-verify basis," he says. "That means that we trust what you say is true as soon as we verify it we know it's true."

Taffaro says he's verified that everything that left the parish has now been returned.

But retired Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for operations in the Gulf, says the original plan to move the boats farther north was only motivated by concerns over keeping the equipment safe and dry.

"I'm still haunted by my flight over New Orleans on the sixth of September, 2005, and see a parking lot of school buses under water," he says. "They were not moved in time to help with the evacuation.

"So we need to continually focus on where this equipment should be and how they can be preserved to help the people in the Gulf area."

Allen says in all the efforts to permanently shut off well, which exploded April 20 killing 11 workers, have been delayed by at least a week. At the site of the oil well, all the critical ships are back in place. Allen says drilling on the relief wells, the best hope for plugging the oil flow for good, should resume shortly.

He says this weekend's evacuation was necessary and a good practice run for future hurricanes.

"We are going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the rest of the hurricane season," he says.

Probably a lot of cat-and-mouse games: This hurricane season is predicted to be an active one. So far there have already been two named storm systems in the Gulf and it's only July.



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