"If a hurricane comes, we're focusing on the hurricane and not the oil spill," said Daniel Hahn, planning director for the county's Emergency Management Division. "The oil presents some possible health issues, but the storm poses a more immediate threat to human safety."
A burst pipe has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico since an explosion April 20 destroyed the Deepwater Horizon mobile drilling platform. Contaminants in the form of tar balls, tar patties and "mousse-like" foam have washed ashore from Texas to the Florida Panhandle and an oily residue of varying thickness covers a large surface area in the Gulf. Oil and related chemicals threaten fragile wetlands ecosystems and the possible effect of the spill on the Gulf's ecology is unknown. Businesses along the affected coasts have suffered as media coverage of the spill has caused a steep decline in tourism.
As if that weren't enough challenge for emergency managers, experts have predicted an unusually active tropical storm season. In June, Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray of The Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University revised their earlier forecast upward and now expect 18 named storms and 10 hurricanes, five of them "major" – Category 3 or greater. Gray and Klotzbach report a 76-percent chance that at least one major hurricane will make landfall somewhere along the United States' coastline and a 50-percent chance a major storm will strike the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, Texas.
Hurricane Alex – the first June hurricane to form in the Atlantic Basin in 15 years – made landfall in Mexico well southwest of the Deepwater Horizon spill, but it did interrupt cleanup operations as boats and crews sought safety.
Professor Ronald Kendall, head of environmental toxicology at Texas Tech University, said in published reports that Alex – which became a Category 2 storm before weakening over land – could be a sign of things to go.
"This is very early in the season to have a storm the size of Alex," Kendall said. "This does not bode well for the months to come."
Hahn said local, state and federal emergency planners have considered the possibility of having to manage hurricane and oil emergencies concurrently.
"We need to treat them as separate incidents," he said. "Although a hurricane could hit us while there's oil in the gulf and spread it wherever, we still have to do the things we always do for a hurricane: stock water and fuel, secure loose items, make sure we have batteries for our flashlights...you have to do all those things. It's just a no-brainer. When the storm is over, we can then go around and assess the damage and determine what we need to do to clean it up."
If a hurricane threatens the spill area or the coast, workers will have to bring their boats and booms to shore to avoid damage. The estuaries, bays and beaches will be left unprotected while storm winds could be pushing oil and related contaminants their way.
Hahn said tar balls and tar patties are unpleasant but rarely threaten human health. By the time they begin to clump together, most of the toxins have evaporated, he said. Most of the dangerous chemicals are dissolved into the water and evaporated into the air well before nearing land, Hahn said. Ironically, the storm that could push the toxic mix closer to the coast also agitates the water, helping the dangerous chemicals breakdown more quickly.
Hahn said the county's emergency response plan includes ensuring plenty of county employees are trained to man key Emergency Operations Center positions, and on Friday workers were moving additional tables and desks into the EOC to ensure Deepwater Horizon Unified Command officials will have a place to work if a hurricane does impact Santa Rosa County.
Hahn encourages residents to go to http://www.santarosa.fl.gov/oilspill/index.html for the most complete and up-to-date information available about the Deepwater Horizon response.