CB2: When Hurricanes Meet Oil

With the strengthening of Hurricane Alex, today marks the first hurricane of the 2010 season, and the 70th day since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The question on everyone’s mind is without a doubt, “What impact will a hurricane have on the oil spill?”
The short answer is “no one knows,” since a hurricane has never crossed over a major oil spill in recorded history. However, there is no shortage of scientists and experts at NOAA who are making educated predictions. Having read through much of that research, I’ll try to boil it down to a few key points in this week’s Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog (CB2). If you have more to contribute beyond these questions, please voice your comments.
How will Hurricane Alex affect the spill, even though it’s not directly over it?
Alex is creating rough conditions at the Deepwater Horizon site with 6-8 foot waves. Under these conditions, oil cannot be burned off the surface and some vessels cannot operate to their full ability. The 15-25 knot south winds will unfortunately push oil into protected areas that have not seen oil yet, and the 1-2 foot storm surge will push oil further into the marsh. Even this storm is bad news for people in the Gulf.
Can the oil slick change the path or intensity of a hurricane?
Unlikely, but not impossible. Most hurricanes are much larger than the size of the more concentrated spill area. It is not believed that the spill will help or hurt the formation of a storm developing in the Gulf.
What will happen to the oil if a hurricane passes through it?
High winds and rough seas could help accelerate to biodegradation of the oil and possibly clean off oil from shores that have already been effected, but the storm could also make the situation much worse by transporting oil to new areas.
Will the hurricane pull up oil that is below the surface?
Hurricanes can mix water to depths as great as 650 feet. If oil is located in that range, the answer could be yes. However, subsurface plumes are believed to be at much greater depths than that and would unlikely be brought to the surface by a storm.
Will it rain oil?
No. 50%-70% of the oil that can evaporate does so in the first 12 hours (the reason why you can only burn it so close to the source). Hurricanes draw moisture from such a large area of the Gulf that the evaporation very near the source of the spill would be too dispersed among the storm by the time rain comes to land.
Could oil riding on a storm surge be washed inland?
Yes. We can’t estimate if, when, or how bad this would be, but it is a possibility that oil on the surface could ride a storm surge inland to residential areas and additional protected marshlands. I try not to think about this.
What worries you the most?
Other than a hurricane pushing oil up onto the coast of my home state of Florida, I worry about the thousands of vessels and people responding to the spill having to shut down and relocate if they’re in a hurricane’s forecast cone. Could the relief wells that we need so badly get pushed back into September? If a storm shuts down the operation, then absolutely.

Website of the Week: NY Times Oil Tracker
This is the best source I’ve found for tracking where oil is in the Gulf, where it has made landfall, effects on wildlife, and what’s being done about the leak. I have it bookmarked.

Preparedness Tip of the Week
Add a new name to your mobile phone address book named “ICE” (in case of emergency) and store your emergency contact as the number. Many first responders are trained to look for this if you are in an accident. I also write “ICE (610)xxx-xxxx” in Sharpie on the back of my driver’s license for the same reason.
Question of the Week
Have you decided not to travel to a Gulf beach (or know someone who has) due to the oil spill?
Factoid About Me
A few years back I co-founded America’s Emergency Network (AEN) with former National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield and CBS’s Bryan Norcross to establish satellite video system for emergency press briefings. It’s still in use today at the NHC. Think of that when you see director Bill Read on TV this summer!

Read Last Week’s CB2: Oil Spill Heroes and a Personal Update.

About Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Chris – another outstanding summary of what’s happening in the Gulf.

Scenario and Question: Oil-laden ocean water floods and/or gets blown on homes along the coast. Days/weeks later 100 degree sun blazes upon those now oil-soaked homes. Could dry conditions start a fire?

Chris Bennett

Andy: No chance. The oil will be so dispersed and the flammable vapors evaporated by then.

Stephen: Ha! And thanks! 🙂

Sara Estes Cohen

Thanks Chris – one additional note I wanted to add: oil pushing into the coast, even if it doesn’t hit cities, would greatly harm the wetlands. Wetlands are important, as they are barriers to storm surge, and the “last line of defense against storms” in the Gulf Coast. For every 2.7 miles of wetlands a hurricane passes over before hitting a city, it reduces the storm surge by 2 feet (approximate). The difference in two feet of storm surge means the difference between a storm like Katrina, and one like Gustav. (At least for the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas.)

Although we are losing football fields of wetlands every year, which greatly increase the risk to New Orleans and other areas of flooding, adding oil to these fragile areas on top of common loss could potentially increase their degradation, thus affecting the Gulf Coast cities’ ability to weather storms in the future.

Arvind Nigam

Excellent post Chris. I am concerned about the intense smell of oil slick penetrating deeper into country pockets by way of rain-mix, moisture mix etc. What do you think?

– Arvind

Henry Brown

any number of folks in this area (northern Al) have canceled their trips to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, including 2 of my neighbors. Most of the local television stations carried a “story” last weekend where an public spokesman for one of the local state parks was saying if you want to cancel your trip to the gulf coast we have adequate room here for you at Guntersville Lake State Park.

@ Andy:
No the normal heat of South Louisiana, will not cause the fire to start (too much humidity and heat not high enough to cause spontaneous combustion . If the affect of Katrina is any indication, once a fire gets started it will very rapidly spread and be very dangerous.

When Katrina tore into New Orleans one of the first “victims” of the surge was a refinery in East New Orleans where 2 “huge” oil tanks burst and saturated homes up to 2 miles away. 7 days later one of the issues that FEMA was trying to decide which homes were so soaked in oil that the fire which was burning in the neighborhood was likely to consume the houses in spite of the heroic efforts of all involved. As I recall, well over 20 houses were destroyed in that fire which under “normal circumstances” would probably only destroyed one or two.

Had the opportunity to go back to that neighborhood last year and though the majority of homes had in fact been completely removed one could still smell the oil which had soaked into just about everything, ground, trees, out buildings etc. Was chatting with a local fireman there and he was still concerned about the affect of a fire in that neighborhood

@ Arvind the intense smell, if Katrina is a valid indication, will not spread a great deal beyond the area of the oil spill. Would guess too much dilution by normal air with no ability to reinforce the smell.

Arvind Nigam

You are very correct Henry about the lasting impact of oil soaked around in the soil, trees local geography. I have a couple of years experience in Oil & Gas industry and I have been a bit hesitant to bring a fear within me out over here. I hope there is sufficient address to this possibility.

Lightening has chance to ignite oil at random places around the landscape. This would happen if there is a “bleevie / bleve” formation with oil droplets & moisture mixture within the upper and lower ignition limits.

Sorry for sounding a bit technical but this is the biggest hazard lying forward for guys out there. I am like 10,000 miles away so I can’t picture the spread of oil spill very well. But if hurricane + lightening forces mixture of liquid hydrocarbon & air (oxygen) in a way it happens inside a carburetor of car, then we are in serious danger there.

Arvind, http://bubbleideas.com

Sara Estes Cohen

I do know however, from first hand accounts, that the oil smell has penetrated the air quality of New Orleans. According to my friends and family, “you can smell the petroleum all around the city” – they are even complaining of headaches.

Chris Bennett

Maybe I don’t have a sensitive nose, but I only smelled the oil once so far — when it was in a very thick state on Grand Isle. After that, once the heavier oil was removed, I didn’t smell anything, even while vacuuming. Never got a headache either, and I get a lot. Remember, much of the fumes do evaporate in the first 12 hours.

The official air quality index in New Orleans is Good (LINK)

I’m inclined to believe it’s in a lot of people’s head’s, OR the fumes from the controlled burns occasionally make their way over these populated areas (like when there are forest fires near us in Florida).

Henry, it sounds like the oil tank incident after Katrina happened close to the homes and was possibly at a different stage (not crude). Oil from the Deepwater incident will have traveled a much greater distance before reaching homes, with the vapors evaporated and the oil more dispersed — though I’m no scientist… just my opinion.

Arvind, NOAA’s stance on lightning is that the conditions during a hurricane (wind) would be too rough for a fire to start and spread. After the storm when the winds die down, again, it would “likely” be too dispersed to ignite.