Admiral to check on Gulf oil response in person; visit comes as oil washes ashore in Miss.

By Mitch Stacy, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Admiral back on the Gulf Coast for spill

NEW ORLEANS — The admiral in charge of the spill response was headed back to the Gulf Coast a day after Mississippi’s governor said he would press BP and the federal government for more help because oil started washing up on the shoreline of his state.

Meanwhile, a tropical storm farther south in the Gulf threatened to push oil from the spill farther inland.

Tropical Storm Alex’s center wasn’t expected to approach the area of the oil spill off Louisiana’s coast, said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But Alex’s outer wind field could push oil from the spill farther inland and hinder operations in the area, Stewart said early Monday.

Forecasters also said Alex could become a hurricane later Monday or Tuesday.

On Sunday, oil was found in at least two areas of Jackson County in Mississippi, and emergency management director Donald Langham said tar balls and a patch of oil were spotted at the St. Andrews beach and at the Lake Mars pier in Gulf Park Estates. The state had been mostly spared the oily mess from the a blown-out undersea well that has spewed anywhere between 69 million and 131 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico the past 10 weeks.

“While command and control of on-water resources has improved, it must get much better and the amount of resources to attack the oil offshore must be greatly increased,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in an e-mailed statement Sunday. BP said it would work with officials to get the necessary help in place.

So far, deadly Tropical Storm Alex that moved into the Gulf on Sunday after dumping rains across Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was not expected to cross the oil spill.

Still, Florida Department of Emergency Management meteorologist Amy Godsey said rough waves churned by the storm would disrupt efforts to corral and burn surface oil and will likely push more oil and tar onto Panhandle beaches throughout the week.

Adm. Thad Allen was expected to be in New Orleans on Monday and talk to the media about the latest on the spill. Allen has received some criticism from local officials who feel he might not be the right man to head the team. He has not responded to the criticism.

For some, the relentless spill is bringing back feelings that are far too familiar still dealing with the physical and emotional toll wrought by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Shrimper Ricky Robin haunted by memories of riding out the hurricane on his trawler and of his father’s suicide in the storm’s aftermath.

“I can’t sleep at night. I find myself crying sometimes,” said Robin, of Violet, a blue-collar community on the southeastern edge of the New Orleans suburbs, along the highway that hugs the levee on the Mississippi River’s east bank nearly all the way to the Gulf.

Psychiatrists who treated people after Katrina and have held group sessions in oil spill-stricken areas say the symptoms showing up are much the same: Anger. Anxiety. Drinking. Depression. Suicidal thoughts.

“Everybody’s acting strange,” said Robin, 56. “Real angry, frustrated, stressed out, fighting brothers and sisters and mamas and family.”

Fishing families, the backbone of the coastal economy, are especially hard-pressed as the waters that make up their livelihood are sporadically closed because of fears the oil will taint fish, oysters and shrimp.

Oil field workers, whose salaries are among the best the region can offer, worry about their industry’s long-term future.

And there is still the rebuilding after Katrina, which in August 2005 devastated a swath from Louisiana to Alabama — almost as big as the area affected by the oil — killing more than 1,600 and forever changing the region’s relationship with the water.

The helplessness, coupled with the uncertainty about what’s going to happen with the spill and when the next check from BP PLC will arrive, leaves boat captain George Pfeiffer angry all the time.

“Our families want to know what’s going on,” said Pfeiffer, 55, who keeps two charter boats at Zeke’s Landing. “When we get home, we’re stressed out and tired, and they want answers and we don’t have any.”

His wife cries, a lot.

“I haven’t slept. I’ve lost weight,” said Yvonne Pfeiffer, 53. “My shoulders are in knots. The stress level has my shoulders up to my ears.”

Mental health professionals say it is too early to have reliable data to understand the full severity of stress issues spawned by the spill.

However, their work so far indicates the problem is taking root, and the backdrop of Katrina means it is likely to get worse. Tropical systems such as the one that swirling back into the Gulf won’t help matters, even though it was forecast to bypass the spill.

“This is a second round of major trauma for children and families still recovering from Katrina. It represents uncharted territory,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a member of the National Commission on Children and Disasters who has worked with Katrina survivors.

The spill — and the prospect of a hurricane whipping oily water into bayous and coastal communities — is also complicating the already complex hurricane planning that takes place each summer. After all, this is a region that’s no stranger to big storms

BP, the Coast Guard and the state of Louisiana have already been talking about how to coordinate evacuations so workers and equipment involved in the oil spill response don’t clog highway escape routes.

Thousands of families that lost jobs because of the spill may have fewer resources for a storm evacuation, said Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Pete Gerica says fishermen like him who typically ride out storms in their boats also might have second thoughts this year. Oily water carried by the storm surge could be difficult to clean.

“You will have to clean up mud and oil. Can you clean that out of the walls? Who knows,” he said.

No matter what happens with Alex, it’s likely just the beginning. Forecasters are predicting a busy hurricane season with powerful storms.

Associated Press Writers Greg Bluestein, Cain Burdeau, John Flesher and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Miss., Pauline Arrillaga in Houma, La., and Sofia Mannos in Washington contributed to this report.

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