If Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen gets word that gale-force winds are five days away from hitting the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he's going to pull out every member of the cleanup crew for two weeks and let the well flow unchecked.
Allen, who is in charge of overseeing the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, said Friday that his team is closely watching for any signs of a tropical storm or a hurricane headed their way. The National Hurricane Center said Friday afternoon that the first tropical depression of the season had formed off the coast of Honduras. It could become Tropical Storm Alex.
If he gets word gale-force winds are headed toward the oil spill, Allen said, it will mean "we will start to redeploy from the well site," he said. Gale-force winds are 45 mph. Hurricanes have winds of 74 mph or more.
When reporters asked why not wait longer and keep working, Allen said, "We're not even waiting, because you don't know — it could move into a (category) 2, 3 or a 4 hurricane by the time it gets there."
If the crews are forced to pull out, he said, they would be unlikely to return to the job for two weeks. During that time, the well would not be connected to any containment system.
Even if Alex fails to chase BP and the Coast Guard away this time, it's unlikely this will be the last storm for them to worry about.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last month there could be 14 to 23 named storms this year, with at least eight of those turning into hurricanes.
"This season could be one of the more active on record," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned.
Forecasters at Colorado State University have predicted 15 named storms that will spawn eight hurricanes this year.
If an approaching storm forces the Coast Guard and BP crews to pull out, Allen said, they will have to disconnect from the containment cap now collecting oil spewing from the well a mile down so "that will be unattended."
That means there would be nothing to contain even a little of the oil now gushing out at a rate estimated from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, or 1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons.
And they would also have to pull out all the boats now skimming oil off the surface.
"I don't think anybody wants a vessel out there trying to skim oil in gale-force winds," he said.
After the storm passes, he said, they would have to coordinate with state and federal agencies in charge of hurricane cleanup and search and rescue — and that would spread their available personnel even thinner.
A tropical storm or a hurricane could do more than just chase away the cleanup crews for two weeks. It could rip apart any protective booms that have been deployed to protect marshes or shorelines. It could drive oil into the sediment just offshore, where it would be hard to clean up. And it could hurl oil-soaked debris and tar balls miles inland.
But that's only if the hurricane hits on or to the west of the slick. Hurricane winds spin counter-clockwise, so a hurricane passing to the east of the slick could instead drive the oil away from the coast.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8530.