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Louisiana preps for Bonnie

Spill weary residents worry new storm will make oil disaster worse

BY JOHN PAPE | July 23, 2010

"This is our life, man. People donít seem to get it; this is our livelihood. If we canít fish, if we can't shrimp, we canít make it,"

—Phil Broussard

Just as south Louisiana residents were breathing a sigh of relief following the capping of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico, they again had to prepare for another possible disaster as Tropical Storm Bonnie bore down on the same areas hardest hit by the BP oil spill.

Bonnie first made landfall in midday Friday near Florida’s Cutler Bay, just south of Miami, as a tropical storm. The storm barely touched the low-lying Florida Keys and raked the southern tip of the state with wind and rains described as no worse than a heavy thunderstorm.

Monroe County Emergency Management Director Irene Toner said her office had not received “any calls that conditions were bad.”

No serious damage or injuries were reported in Florida.

As Bonnie moved into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico late Friday afternoon, the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression, but was expected to regain strength from warm gulf waters as it took dead aim on the already hard-hit Louisiana coast.

With Bonnie headed for the heart of the oil spill, crews drilling the Deepwater Horizon relief well began evacuating. Crew boats ferried workers out of the area, a move that is expected to halt work on the relief well for as much as two weeks.

The mechanical cap that has been holding the oil in check for more than a week will remain closed even though the submersible robots monitoring the plug are being removed as the storm passes. The robots will be among the last to leave the area, however, and the first to return.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the spill clean-up effort, said he believes the cap will remain stable despite several small leaks detected last week.

The approach of Bonnie has also heightened fears a storm surge would push more oil into Louisiana marshes. Those fears led to a temporary stand-off between one local Louisiana official and federal authorities over the planned removal of barges and booms protecting vulnerable St. Tammany Parish.

After a series of heated meetings, St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis issued an order to arrest anyone Ė including Coast Guard officials Ė who attempted to move the barges protecting the St. Tammany coast.

“These barges are the only thing preventing oil from being pushed up into Lake Pontchartrain,” Davis said.

He later withdrew the order after parish and federal officials agreed to a compromise plan that involved relocating the barges farther inland.

As the storm loomed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal traveled to the Plaquemines Parish Emergency Operations Center where he met with Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Hal Turner, Parish President Billy Nungesser and first responders for an assessment of state and local preparations for the storm.

Jindal said he came to Plaquemines Parish because it would be the first to feel the impact of the storm. He urged residents to not take Bonnie lightly.

“We’re urging everyone to get prepared now and to ensure they have a game plan. While it’s only forecasted to be tropical depression at this point, we know from experience that it’s best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Jindal said.

He also state officials were preparing to deal with the additional oil Bonnie is expected to wash ashore.

“We’re doing everything we can to minimize and mitigate the impact of the oil on our coastline. For instance, we continue to work with the federal government and BP to adjust their evacuation plans in the event of a storm,” Jindal said.

He also encouraged coastal residents to stay updated on local weather reports.

“As we know, storms can quickly strengthen and change directions so it’s critical for our people to remain vigilant and be ready to implement their game plans,” the governor said.

Phil Broussard, who shrimps off the Plaquemines coast, said he was headed for safe harbor.

“No use in taking chances; the last thing I need is to tear my boat up when money is so tight,” Broussard said.

With much of the fishing waters off Louisiana closed because of the oil spill, Broussard, like many of his fellow fishermen, has been tied up in port for weeks. He said it was becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

“This is our life, man. People don’t seem to get it; this is our livelihood. If we can’t fish, if we can't shrimp, we can’t make it,” he said. “I’ve asked for help from BP, the state and everybody I can think of, and all of them tell me they’re reviewing my application.”

Broussard said it was hard for typically self-reliant Cajuns to even ask for help.

“We may not be rich people, but we’re proud people. It hurts our heart to even have to ask anybody for help,” Broussard explained. “All we want is to have the chance to make a living. For a lot of us, all this BP oil spill mess has taken that away from us and nobody seems to know how to fix it.”

Grand Isle resident Jimmy Richard said he would board up his house and ride the storm out.

“This is my home. It’s all I really got and I’m staying right here,” Richard explained. “If it was a big hurricane, I’d grab my dog and head up to Alexandria and stay with my brother, but this one doesn’t look too bad.”

Richard also said he hopes after Bonnie passes, south Louisiana’s luck will improve.

“It’s been a tough year, that’s for sure. Just when everybody was pretty much back on their feet after (Hurricane) Katrina, along comes all this oil. Just when they get the well capped, here comes a storm,” he said. “It’s just got to get better sometime.”

Things are also becoming increasingly difficult for the many relief and faith-based organizations helping those impacted by the spill. The possibility of more people needing assistance because of Bonnie would put an even greater burden on already-limited resources.

Eric Long with Plaquemines-based Faith Temple said his church is trying to help as many people as possible with short-term aid, but the fund is reaching a dangerously low level after more than three months of the BP oil spill.

“We don’t want to say no to anyone in need, but we can’t give what we don’t have,” Long said. “We’re cautiously optimistic the storm won’t gain much strength and we’ll be as lucky as Florida was.”

On Thursday, Gov. Jindal issued an emergency declaration to speed additional state assistance to parishes in advance of the approaching storm.

Lafourche Parish is planning for voluntary evacuations for low lying areas only at this time, and they plan to open a parish shelter only if needed. Plaquemines Parish has also announced voluntary evacuations for low-lying areas, using the Belle Chasse Auditorium as a shelter. The parish has also requested Red Cross support.

St. Charles Parish is expected call for a voluntary evacuation of low-lying areas and along the West Bank area outside of the levee protection. The parish also plans to set up one shelter and request Red Cross assistance, if needed.

Acadia, Calcasieu, Cameron, and St. Martin parishes are also planning voluntary evacuations of low-lying areas and people living in mobile homes.

Other parishes are continuing to monitor the storm’s development to determine if evacuations are needed.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced plans for a special mass on Sunday to ask for holy intercession to protect Louisiana “from further harmful effects of the oil spill and for the region’s recovery.” The mass will be said at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Port Sulphur.

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