“This year especially we have a particular challenge as we go into hurricane season, with the oil in the Gulf,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish area.
Five years after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina, the state braced for for more misery amid warnings the next six months may be a highly active storm season.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has predicted up to 14 hurricanes, of which between three to seven will be “major” tempests, packing winds in excess of 110 miles per hour (176 kilometers per hour).
Officials say oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill has already tainted nearly 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of marshland since an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon rig some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off Louisiana.
Nungesser repeated a plea to US authorities to give the go-ahead for Plaquemines Parish officials to start building sand barriers off the coast to block the oil.
“Without something out here to keep it from flowing in, there’s no way of defending ourselves — the only way we’re going to save the coastline is berms,” Nungesser told AFP.
“Everywhere oil has impacted, the marshes are going to die. If we see oil in the marshes now, next year they’ll all be gone,” he said.
He warned the oil slick would have a more devastating effect on Louisiana’s shores than powerful hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Rita combined.
At least 20 million gallons of oil are estimated to have gushed into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
As attempt after attempt to plug the leak has failed, the oil has seeped towards shore and was Monday spotted in inland waterways, including Grand Blue Bayou and Little Lake, both prized sites for fishing speckled trout.
Oil has poured into the marshlands each time there has been a thunderstorm, said Nungesser.
A storm surge — when sea water is washed inland by high hurricane-force winds — could carry oil from the Gulf, up the Mississippi Delta and “into people’s back gardens,” Nungesser told a packed hurricane preparedness meeting.
Residents may be left dealing not only with flooding, but also with the toxic residue of the oil, he said.
Scientists have said huge plumes of oil are hanging underneath the surface of the sea, and sheen has been spotted on the surface.
“If we get a hurricane in the Gulf, that oil and all that dispersant they’re putting in there is going to be right up here with us, and that just scares the heck out of me,” said 60-year-old Belle Chasse resident Harriet Hamilton.
Locals have slammed BP for its handling of the crisis, accusing the British oil giant of fudging facts, of “poisoning” the Gulf waters with dispersant and of being too slow to staunch the flow of crude into the sea.
Fishermen have been unable to fish during prime season, and their economic plight is impacting other industries that depend on the multi-billion-dollar seafood business.
“It’s God-awful. We need a lot of prayers, some divine intervention and some men from BP who care,” said Hamilton.
BP has shipped in thousands of workers to help with the oil clean-up effort in the worst environmental disaster in US history. But that poses another problem for local leaders as a major hurricane would mean thousands more people would have to be evacuated.
The government and companies official response website acknowledged strong winds “may distribute oil over a wider area,” but also sought to put a positive spin on the start of storm season.
“The high winds and seas will mix and ‘weather’ the oil which can help accelerate the biodegradation process,” the Deepwater Horizon Response website said.