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Gulf Evacuations Delay Cleanup Operations

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Gulf Evacuations Delay Cleanup Operations

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Gulf Evacuations Delay Cleanup Operations

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And now we're going to hear about the resumption of the oil cleanup in the Gulf. Ships were taken out of the Gulf over the weekend in anticipation of a tropical storm. But that storm, named Bonnie, dissipated long before hitting the site of the oil spill. Still, the evacuation set back efforts to permanently shut the blown-out well. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from New Orleans.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

CARRIE KAHN: St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro heads up the Mississippi River channel in a small boat. He's going 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 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.

Mr. CRAIG TAFFARO (President, St. Bernard Parish): We are just trying to get some of those boats that we brought in for safe harbor out.

KAHN: 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.

Mr. TAFFARO: Be sure that we can get back to work. We don't want to lose any time that we don't have to. Any day we've lost is a day too many.

KAHN: Taffaro and the rest of the crews around Louisiana lost at least three days of cleanup time due to the threat of bad weather. In the end, tropical storm 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 Parish President Taffaro, balked. Taffaro says many here 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 still doesn't trust the oil company.

Mr. TAFFARO: Let's just say that we are acting on a trust-but-verify basis. That means we trust what you say is true. As soon as we verify it, we know it's true.

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

But retired Admiral 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.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard, Retired; Director of Gulf Recovery Plans): I'm still haunted by my flight over New Orleans on the 6th of September, 2005, seeing a parking lot full of school buses, underwater. They were not moved in time so they could help with the evacuation. So we need to continually focus on where this equipment should be, and how it can best be preserved to help the people of the Gulf area.

KAHN: Allen says in all, the efforts to permanently shut off the blown-out well have been delayed by at least a week. At the site of the oil well, all the critical ships are back in place, and Allen says drilling on the relief wells -the best hope for plugging the oil flow for good - should resume shortly.

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

Adm. ALLEN: We're going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season.

KAHN: 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.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, New Orleans.

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