The Blog Aquatic » hurricane News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As Gulf Faces Tropical Storm Threat, Shutdown Keeps Oil Spill Experts Off the Job Fri, 04 Oct 2013 21:33:00 +0000 Jeff Watters

Credit – National Weather Service: National Hurricane Center

Heading into the weekend, there are three very disturbing realities coming together that make those of us who care about the ocean very uncomfortable:

  1. Tropical Storm Karen is making its way through the Gulf of Mexico and heading straight towards a vast field of offshore oil rigs and pipelines. Parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are already under tropical storm watches and warnings.
  2. When tropical storms and hurricanes hit this region, they can cause a lot of oil spills. For example, the damage that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused to rigs and pipelines resulted in  spills totaling 17, 652 barrels (or roughly three-quarters of a million gallons) of petroleum products. Even more oil was spilled from on-shore facilities. Not to mention the fact that a major storm might also churn up submerged oil from the BP oil spill, sending it back onto our shores and beaches.
  3. Because of the government shutdown, many of NOAA’s oil spill experts – employees of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration – are furloughed and off the job.

Talk about bad timing.

Based on the Department of Commerce’s contingency plan for the government shutdown, it appears that NOAA’s division that deals with oil spills only kept a small handful of employees on duty to “maintain minimal on-hand response activities.” This means that many of NOAA’s oil spill experts are locked out of their offices and unable to even check their government email accounts. The number that remain at work is very small – so few, in fact, that they could probably split a pizza for lunch. So for all oil spills across the entire country… that’s it. That’s all that’s left. There’s nobody else.

Now don’t completely panic. It’s possible that in light of the approaching storm, the government may recall NOAA’s oil spill experts and deem them “essential” in light of a disaster. They still wouldn’t get paid, but we could have those experts on hand to map the spills, determine the spills’ trajectories, and provide the scientific support that the Coast Guard and other first responders will need.

But is this really any way to run a government or protect the environment?

Imagine if your local town or city experienced a shutdown that closed the police and firefighting departments, sent all of the officers and firefighters home – furloughed indefinitely without pay – but then said: “Don’t worry, we’ll call them back into work if a building catches fire or someone commits a crime.” No mayor would dream of running a city like that.

A local community deserves better, and so do the ocean and the environment.

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Rebuilding The Places We Love After The Storms That Change Our Lives Thu, 01 Nov 2012 20:15:43 +0000 Bethany Kraft I live in a world where time is marked by the storms that alter the face of the landscape and change people’s lives: Betsy, Camille, Frederick, Opal, Ivan, Katrina, Isaac. Hurricanes are a fact of life in the Gulf, and I feel confident in saying that folks on the Gulf Coast are sending their thoughts and prayers to those most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy because we understand the extent of the work and time it will take to recover.  We will nod our heads in understanding when you start a sentence five years from now with “Before Hurricane Sandy” because that’s how we speak, too.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of talk about the city of New Orleans and its vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. Some people even said that the city shouldn’t be rebuilt, that it would be a waste of resources to build back in a place hanging on by a fingernail to the last fringes of marsh that are losing ground every day to a hungry and unforgiving sea.

Perhaps people will say the same of the coastal communities devastated by Sandy. Then again, in a year marked by devastating droughts, wildfires and other disasters, it seems like there is no place left to run. We may as well stand our ground and fight for the places we love. And so, when the shock has worn off, when the debris has been cleared away, when the news cameras are gone, people will begin the long task of rebuilding in the wide swath of destruction Sandy left behind. And we will continue with the task of rebuilding here along the Gulf, creating a kinship and solidarity across geographic divides and thousands of miles. We are all in this together.

If there is anything that living along the coast has taught me, it is that we are tiny and powerless in the face of something as untamed as Nature, and that despite our best efforts to engineer her into submission over the last 100 years, we can never fully engineer the wild out of wildness. Levees, seawalls, jetties and bulkheads–these engineered structures may provide some measure of protection and help us to feel safe and secure, but we would do well to remember that sometimes Nature has already figured out the solution, and we just have to let it work.

Rebuilding will happen. It has to happen. But we need to rebuild more than our homes and schools and roads. We need to rebuild the wetlands and the oyster reefs, and protect the dunes that protect us when the waters rise and the winds howl. I don’t believe in restoration of our natural resources because it’s nice to have trees and beaches. I do it because

I do it because restoring our natural resources is a life or death proposition. Without them, we are building castles in the sand. And we’ll have to keep building them over and over. Out of the tragedy of storms like Katrina and Isaac and Sandy comes an opportunity to rebuild the very things that make life on the fringes so beautiful and precious.

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Hurricane Isaac Churns Up Reminder of BP’s Damage to the Gulf of Mexico Wed, 05 Sep 2012 21:22:30 +0000 Bethany Kraft

Tar balls photographed by Louisiana state response teams on Elmer’s Island in Jefferson Parish on September 1, 2012. Credit: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Last week was a long one for Gulf Coast residents as we watched Hurricane Isaac waffle about where to land before settling on coastal Louisiana, causing massive flooding from storm surge in Mississippi and Louisiana and bringing businesses and communities to a grinding halt for over a week.

As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, what with hurricanes and flooding and power outages and devastation for too many people, we also had the pleasure of remembering (in case any of us had forgotten) that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.

Far from magically disappearing, oil has persisted in the marine environment for over two years now, and the force of Hurricane Isaac has churned up an ugly reminder of how much work we still have to do to restore the Gulf ecosystem. Tarballs and mats are showing up from Louisiana to Alabama, even forcing the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to issue a closure for commercial fishing in the area of a large oil mat off Elmer’s Island.

Officials are working to assess the extent of oiling after the storm, and are not surprised to see oiled shorelines corresponding to areas that experienced significant oiling during the summer and fall of 2010 and beyond.

“I’d say there is a smoking gun,” Garrett Graves, the coastal adviser to Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal, told news organizations in this article from the Guardian. “It’s an area that experienced heavy oiling during the spill.’”

In the midst of the re-oiling of miles of shoreline and the stark reminder that our marine environment is ground zero for oil persisting in the environment, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently responded to what it calls “plainly misleading representations in BP’s papers concerning liability and Natural Resource Damage (“NRD”) issues” in a motion BP filed on August 13 asking the court to approve a private settlement regarding economic and property damage.

The DOJ states that BP’s motion for the private settlement “overreaches in seeking to establish either that it acted without gross negligence and willful misconduct or that the environment has recovered without harm from the discharge of millions of barrels of oil.”(Page 4 of DOJ brief.)

The filing gives an overview of DOJ’s case for gross negligence and willful misconduct, and provides evidence that the environment is still suffering lasting damage and degradation as a result of BP’s actions, disputing BP’s assertion that many aspects of the Gulf are recovering, stating that while “it is true that many resources are in a better condition than at the height of the Spill — after all, they are no longer slathered in layers of BP’s oil— it is also true they continue to suffer significant harm from the Spill, and it is not possible at this time to conclude that they have recovered, despite the information that BP presents.” (DOJ brief at 27.)

There is much work to do, but together we can take on any challenges we face. Tomorrow I will write about how Ocean Conservancy is thinking about restoration in the marine environment.

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Hurricane Isaac Threatens Gulf Region Tue, 28 Aug 2012 19:46:14 +0000 Bethany Kraft

This visible image of Tropical Storm Isaac taken from NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite shows the huge extent of the storm. The image was captured on Aug. 28 at 8:40 a.m. EDT. Credit: NOAA

I wrote a blog post about the start of hurricane season back in June, and I am writing this one today in Hurricane Isaac’s sights. Hurricanes are anything but predictable, and this one in particular has been hard to track. Would it rain and blow into the Republican Convention in Tampa? Head West towards Texas? Now, less than 24 hours away from landfall, it looks like Isaac has made up his mind to aim for somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, which means rain and wind anywhere across the Gulf Coast, and hopefully not much more than that. We hope.

If you are watching the approach of the storm on TV, you’d think that hurricanes are some sort of spectator sport or reality TV show. DEVASTATION! MANDATORY EVACUATION! DESTRUCTION! It turns what is a serious event into a sort of comic theater. Note to newscasters: Gulfport is in MS and Mobile Bay in in AL. Just sayin’. (Sorry, I’ve been seeing silly screen shots on Facebook all morning that are geographically confused).

In the midst of the TV hullabaloo, I thought I’d take a few minutes to tell you what I think about Hurricane Isaac while safely tucked away from the weather, listening to the weather radio and wondering what the day will bring. Mind you, these thoughts are mine alone, and not meant to represent those of Gulf residents, generally.

1. Hurricanes make me uncharitable. I want the storm to go anywhere but where I happen to be. Well, what I really want is to be watching the radar when all of a sudden–poof!– the swirling bands of rain disappear from the screen like a magic trick. But, knowing that is pretty darn unlikely, I instead find myself wishing that the storm knocks somewhere other than my front door, even though I don’t wish bad luck on anyone else. And so I watch the radar like I’m bowling, leaning left and then right, hoping that somehow the motion of my body moves the storm where I want it to go.

2. Hurricanes make me charitable, too. When you find yourself preparing for a storm, out and about gathering water, batteries, food, etc. everyone you come across is a friend, and you are lashed in the boat together for better or worse. “You leavin’ or ridin’ it out? You boarding up? Bout to get windy!” These are the greetings you exchange with friends and perfect strangers. As the storm approaches and everyone heads home to hunker down, I am reminded of how strong our communities are when faced with tough times: texts and emails and calls coming in from friends and family both near and far, with well wishes and offers to check on homes, to come over for dinner when the storm passes, to stay safe, to holler if you need help. The Gulf region has taken a lot of hits over the years, but the fabric of our community stays tightly woven, and that is a beautiful thing.

3. Isaac makes me worry. This is the first hurricane to hit the area since the BP oil disaster in 2010, and the churning of the water from Isaac may well toss up oil that has been lurking offshore. This is a stark reminder for me of how thoughtful we need to be about restoration moving forward, and that we can’t neglect the marine environment when we talk about recovery from the oil disaster– the oil hasn’t magically disappeared. There is still a long way to go before BP has made good on its promise to “make things right” for the Gulf, and I’m afraid we will get a stark reminder of that when we see what Isaac stirs up.

4. Hurricanes remind me of how vulnerable we are, and how we become more vulnerable with every passing year. Storms are a fact of life on the Gulf, but sea level rise and loss of protective habitats like wetlands (which act like giant sponges to protect coastal communities from storm surge) means that we are more at the mercy of Mother Nature than ever before, in spite of our efforts to engineer ourselves into a protective cocoon of levees and seawalls– you just can’t engineer the wildness out of nature. If you think of our coastal communities as the beating heart of the Gulf region, then our wetlands and marshes are the rib cage that protects us. Losing them to filling, erosion or oiling peels away our protection one layer at a time, and that is a loss for everyone, not just those of us who call the Gulf region home.

It’s starting to rain a bit, and so I will sign off for now. Keep the Gulf in your thoughts today, and we’ll see you on the other side.

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Preparing for Hurricane Season in the Gulf of Mexico Thu, 31 May 2012 23:07:40 +0000 Bethany Kraft

For most folks, June 1st passes much like any other day (although it is Oscar the Grouch’s birthday and official “flip a coin” day), but for people who call the Gulf coast home, it’s a significant day on the calendar. It marks the start of hurricane season, which runs until November 30.

Like many people, I find myself equally fearful of and fascinated by these intense weather events. Talk to anyone who’s lived on the coast for more than 5 years and I bet they have a hurricane story for you. I personally learned about latitude and longitude by tracking Hurricane Gilbert as it marched towards Texas in September of 1988. I spent a long night and morning in Mobile, Alabama listening to Katrina howl her way into history as one of the nation’s most devastating disasters.

Friends who live in other parts of the country always have the same question for me this time of year, “Why do you live on the coast? If you don’t want to get hit by a hurricane, don’t live there.” My answer is always the same: This is my home. I carry this place so deep inside me that there is no force strong enough to untether me from the Gulf. Not even a hurricane.

Here’s the thing. People have lived on the Gulf coast for thousands of years. What’s different now is that we’ve forgotten how to live with water, forgotten that no matter how much we try to engineer it into submission, nature will always be wild and unpredictable. The Gulf ecosystem is capable of weathering hurricanes and providing some protection to communities, but only if we recognize the vital role our resources play in protecting us.

Consider wetlands. Wetlands act as buffers when a storm hurtles toward shore. Marshes and wetlands reduce the height of waves and storm surge and slows the movement of water toward our communities. Yet we are losing them at alarming rates due to erosion, development and sea level rise. In Louisiana alone, we lose the equivalent of 32 football fields of wetlands every single day.

Restoring vital resources like wetlands not only helps support our wildlife, it makes our communities stronger and more resilient. So next time you see The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore coming to you live from the Gulf, remember that it’s not just the critters who live here who need our resources to thrive, it’s every person who makes a home here.

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